Haryana stalking case: When BJP resorts to victim shaming

Instead of going after the state BJP chief's son, the leadership shames Varnika Kundu.

 |  8-minute read |   07-08-2017
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BJP leaders and the prime minister may talk about “Beti Bachao”, women empowerment and women’s rights on opportune moments to score points, but the case of Haryana Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president’s son, Vikas Barala, arrested for stalking a woman, is proving without doubt that the party ideology is as backward and patriarchal as it gets.

On the night of August 5, Varnika Kundu, the daughter of IAS officer Varinder Singh Kundu, (additional chief secretary to government of Haryana, tourism department) was stalked through the streets of Chandigarh by Vikas Barala and his friend Ashish Kumar. The two men followed her in a car, and tried to force her to open the door of her car. She called the police as she was being chased by the two men, and they were arrested on charges of drunk driving and stalking.

Kundu then took to Facebook to share her ordeal.

Schoolchildren and destitute widows tying rakhis on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s wrist can’t deflect the focus from the reality that BJP members have tried their best to discredit a woman who had the guts to call out a political brat for harassing her.

Almost all high profile incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment in India have been followed by victim-shaming from Indian politicians, fulfilling that requisite this time was BJP’s state vice president Ramveer Bhatti, who told CNN-News18, "The girl should not have gone out at 12 in the night. Why was she driving so late in the night? The atmosphere is not right. We need to take care of ourselves."

Bhatti’s views are hardly surprising. Nor is he the only one trying to shame Kundu. In a (now deleted) Facebook post, Kuldeep Barala, a member of the Barala family, shared a photo of the victim with two men and implied that she was drunk at the time of the incident.

In another post, Kuldeep Barala shared a photo of Kundu with alcohol glasses, trying to character-assassinate Kundu, also claiming that the incident was being blown out of proportion by the Opposition to malign the BJP leader’s image. 

barala-1_080717032835.jpgPhoto: The Wire

barala-2_080717032850.jpgPhoto: The Wire

While she did not blame the woman, BJP Lok Sabha MP from Chandigarh Kirron Kher tweeted something equally horrendous: “Incident with young girl from Chandigarh is unfortunate & shouldn't happen to anyone. We must also NOT play politics with a woman's dignity.”

While speaking to CNN-News18, she repeated her stance again: "Politics will not be played with the case and that children often do things for which parents have to pay a price."  

Haryana chief minister ML Khattar, too, on August 6 said that Subhash Barala can’t be punished for the actions of his son: “I came to know about this incident. Chandigarh Police has filed the complaint and I believe they will take appropriate action. This matter is not related with Subhash Barala but with an individual. So action would be taken against his son.”

Of course, ML Khattar is the same man who once remarked, "...if women want freedom, why don't they just roam around naked? Freedom has to be limited. These short clothes are western influences. Our country's tradition asks girls to dress decently." 

Kirron Kher and ML Khattar may be concerned with “politics” being played here, but when politicians start victim-shaming to protect the scions of their cadre, evidence starts going missing and the accused gets little more than a slap on the wrist. In this case, one can clearly see who is playing politics.

According to an IANS report, Chandigarh police, on August 7, said there was no CCTV footage available of the incident. DSP Satish Kumar told the media that they tried to get CCTV footage from nine cameras along the route where the woman was allegedly chased, from Sector 7 to Housing Board traffic light point in Chandigarh, but all were found to be “non-functional”. 

“It is strange that the CCTV cameras of such high-profile areas were not working. This seems to be a cover-up,” a junior police officer told IANS.

Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala commented: “This is extremely clear that BJP is pressurising Chandigarh administration and hatching conspiracy to protect the son of its political leader. May we ask on behalf of people of India if drunken youth, goons chase a girl for seven kilometers, attempt to block her car and forcibly open the door and try to enter the car, [and] is it not the case of abduction and outraging the modest of a woman? Why have these offences not been lodged? The Prime Minister and chief minister must answer these questions to the people of country.”

Add to that the fact that 23-year-old Vikas Barala, despite strong criticism from the Opposition and the national media, was released on bail on August 6. Despite the fact that in the FIR against Barala and his friend Ashish Kumar, they were accused under Indian Penal Code (IPC) Section 354 D (stalking) and Section 185 of the Motor Vehicle Act (driving by a drunken person or by a person under the influence of drugs) as well as the more serious Sections 341 (wrongful restraint), 365 (kidnapping) and 511 (attempt to commit offences punishable with imprisonment), the police dropped the Sections 341, 365 and 511.

Kundu’s account makes it clear that the accused men did intend to abduct her, but the police are all but paws when political power comes into play.

According to Sumeet Goyal, a lawyer at the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the police’s intention of treating the case sensitively (because of who the accused is) was made evident from the fact that they included 354D (stalking) of the IPC and not Section 354 (sexual harassment), which is a non-bailable offence. “It is a clear-cut case of Sections 354, 365 (kidnapping) read with 511 of the IPC. Let me put it straight, they wouldn’t have walked up to the girl simply to say hi, hello,” he told Hindustan Times

Rajwinder Singh Bains, another senior advocate, too described the bailable charges in the FIR as the “police’s failure”. According to him, instead of beginning with the strongest action, they had chosen to take the weakest action, allowing the accused to walk out on bail.

“The intention here is to be seen, and going by the woman’s account it was absolutely to kidnap her, molest her or even rape her. If you chase a woman’s car for seven kilometres, block her way repeatedly, try to forcibly open the doors of her car in the middle of the night, what is the inference to be made out? It is a different matter that they could not succeed in their intentions, but all the circumstances are against the accused,” Bains said.

Gendered violence in India is often left unreported by the victims because they either don’t want to get caught up in red tape or do not believe the police can help. More than half the crimes in Mumbai and New Delhi go unreported, and the police in those cities refuse to register most complaints of sexual harassment, according to the human rights non-profit Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The Barala case is enough reason to understand why.

When law enforcement officials are forced to go soft on criminals despite evidence because they hail from influential families and when politicians happily victim-shame, who are ordinary citizens supposed to turn to for help?

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