“The law should take its own course; the BJP is a party which believes in women's rights and freedom”, said Subhash Barala, father of the accused Vikas Barala who on Wednesday appeared before the police and was arrested after they had sent him a summons. This, after the Friday night incident, where he and a friend were booked and released on bail for allegedly stalking and harassing a woman.
The matter quickly and inevitably turned political with allegation from the Congress that the police charged him with bailable offences in an attempt to shield him on account of his father’s position. Some, even from within the BJP, have called for his resignation.
The latest incident is a sobering reminder on women’s safety and the issue getting warped when one of the sides involved is related to or is in the political arena. The Times of India editorial highlights the evils of VIP culture and lack of women’s safety in the country –
“Varnika Kundu, is among those rare women who actually spoke out about their ordeal. She has vowed to pursue justice and set an example for all women who suffer silently in such cases.”
The responses seem all too familiar given the circumstances of the incident. One example was from Babul Supriyo; a Union Minister –
1/many:Guys, think rationallyA guy chases a girl- he's drunk!Deplorable But why charge him with 'Abduction'; etc without investigation?— Babul Supriyo (@SuPriyoBabul) 8 August 2017
The editorial goes on to state how Varnika is taking on the system, fending off attacks on her character through the routine and archaic line of questioning from certain BJP politicians as to ‘why was she out late at night?’ and the like –
“Varnika will be taking on a system that is geared towards protecting the powerful. She has already had to face attacks from BJP leaders who prefer to blame the victim…there are accusations that the Chandigarh police – who Varnika credits for rescuing her – diluted the charges against the accused under political pressure.”
The editorial states how the BJP can save face –
“If the Chandigarh case has caused great embarrassment to BJP, as there are widespread allegations it is pressuring the police to protect its own rather than protect women, the best way to save itself from such ignominy in future – as well as to strike a blow against VIP culture and for good governance – is to facilitate much needed police reforms across the country.”
Somak Ghoshal writes in the Huffington Post India on the legal side of things and how lenient the law is towards the accused when it comes to stalking –
“…a loophole in the existing law against stalking amended in 2013 that made it possible for the accused to go out scot-free. While Barala and Kumar were charged under Section 354D (stalking) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and 185 of the Motor Vehicle Act, they did not have the sections for kidnapping or attempt to do so slapped on them.”
Speaking to the Indian Express, senior Advocate Rajwinder Singh Bains faults the police for the charges filed stating that they chose to take the weakest action. He said, “The intention here is to be seen, and going by the woman’s account it was absolutely to kidnap her...” Other legal experts have also argues that the charges were not strict.
Criminal lawyer IPS Kohli said, “Looking at the allegations on the face of it, the police could have gone stricter while registering the case because one cannot rule out attempts of the accused in this particular incident.” In particular, Section 354D which was created after the Delhi gang rape not being made non-bailable surprised legal experts.
This isn’t the first time the Baralas have been in hot water. The Punjab and Haryana High Court on Tuesday asked the police for a status report on allegations against Subashs’ nephew Kuldeep Barala; the charges are of him and others pressuring a minor girl to change her statement after she was allegedly kidnapped and raped by one of Kuldeep’s relatives.
The Deccan Chronicle editorial states that this incident is a test for law enforcement and Indian society in general–
“Known to be invariably subservient when the politically connected are involved in a crime…the Union territory police that is directly under the Union home ministry, is under pressure to show it can conduct a fair investigation. Unless the police and judiciary handle the case without fear or favor, doubts will remain that, despite all tall claims about women’s safety, whether anything has really changed in India.”
“This is a test case for Indian society that has grappled with very serious issues concerning women’s treatment. As the victim herself noted in her brave media appearances, she is perhaps fortunate not to have been thrown into a ditch after being raped as is usually the case with many unfortunate women across the country that is fast gaining global notoriety for sexual assaults on women.”
The incident also puts into light how the BJP at the centre and Narendra Modi who has championed the girl child and women’s safety come up short. Journalist and author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay points out in a piece for The Wire how it’s a matter of all talk and no action -
“In his maiden Independence Day speech in 2014 from the historic ramparts of the Red Fort in the Indian capital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also spoke on the issue of rape and sexual violence against women in the country.”
“That in the days since the incident there has been no action against Haryana BJP chief Subhash Barala, who’s son is the accused in the case, is indicative that Modi’s long lecture to parents of sons to ensure that their boys did not stray and commit crimes against women has not percolated down within his own party.”
The article goes on to point out how members of the BJP have themselves made sexist remarks in the past; for example a few weeks after Modi’s independence day speech, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar saying if women dressed ‘decently’ a boy will not look at her in the wrong way. Another one was Congress leader Ashok Gehlot decrying the ‘pub and mall culture’ in the country saying, “Because of liquor culture, over 6000 rape cases were reported in Rajasthan when the BJP was in power.”
This goes to the larger sexist mindset that many in politics seem to have when it comes to women’s safety and women in general. Senior journalist Ranjona Banerji in an op-ed for Mid Day writes on this particularly relating to the Chandigarh incident –
“The first act was to put a picture of Kundu with two men and claim that one of them was Vikas Barala. It was not. The second is to claim that Kundu was "drunk" because by Indian law, it is perfectly acceptable for men to stalk "drunk" women. The third act is to claim that Kundu was talking on the phone while she was driving, which is against the law. The fourth act is to find old photographs of her surrounded by glasses that could contain alcohol and, thus, malign her image as an ideal Bharatiya female”
The investigation going forward will be complex given the political angle. This will certainly be a test for the BJP if it lives up to its leaders’ speech on women; it’s imperative that the party not influence the proceedings but it’s natural to cast doubt on that premise given the persons involved.
As the accused father Subhash Barala himself stated “The BJP supports the freedom of daughters. Varnika Kundu is like my daughter.” Going forward, as Sandip Roy points out writing in the Huffington Post –
“Women do not deserve freedom/rights/protection under the law/fair treatment because they are daughters/mothers/sisters. She deserves fair treatment as a person who feels she has been wronged. She does not need to be Barala's daughter or "like" Barala's daughter to expect justice from the law.”
More columns by Varun Sukumar