“She should not have gone out at 12 in the night,” pat came the remark from Ramveer Bhatti, vice-president of Haryana BJP. Bhatti was referring to 29-year-old DJ Varnika Kundu’s ordeal of being stalked and followed by Haryana BJP chief’s son Vikas Barala and his accomplice, Ashish Kumar.
According to her social media post, Kundu was driving back home on 4th August when Barala followed her in his car and at one point, tried to pry her car door open. Kundu got timely help from the Chandigarh police, who booked Barala for stalking and drunken driving. When Kundu decided to speak up against her stalker, it raised an uproar equal to a Bollywood crime thriller — a politician’s son getting bail, alleged attempts by the BJP to hide the CCTV footage and, of course, victim shaming.
After being briefly arrested on 5th August (they were out on bail immediately) Barala and Kumar have been arrested with non-bailable charges slapped on them. This is while Kundu was subjected to Bhatti’s comments. The public response was no different. Some Twitter users accused her of staging a publicity stunt with this case. Prashant P Umrao, a Supreme Court advocate, tweeted asking if Kundu was drunk at the time of the incident. He also suggested that she should be arrested for talking on the phone while driving. (But the saving grace is how a lot of young women came together last night to show solidarity to Kundu by posting selfies at midnight with the hashtag #AintNoCinderella as a response to Bhatti).
Kundu was brave and lucky. In 1996, Delhi law student Priyadarshini Mattoo was raped and murdered by the son of a police inspector-general after stalking her for years. On May 15, 2016, a woman and her family were assaulted, threatened and chased by five men in Anand Parbat in Delhi. The men had been arrested the day before for stalking her, but had been released on bail. In the two decades between 1996 and 2016, every month has featured cases of stalking women escalating to terrifying violence.
If you know about cases such as Mattoo’s or that of the teenager’s in Anand Parbat, the stylised stalking of our movies suddenly seem not stylised enough. In the 1994 film, Anjaam, Shah Rukh Khan returns to his K-k-k-Kiranness by stalking Madhuri Dixit’s character Shivani. The more she spurns his advances, the more he stalks her. He then murders her husband, child and sister-in-law to get to Shivani. When she turns to the police for help, they only question her own intentions. “What were you doing there?”, an inspector asks her. The movie eventually ends with Shivani’s death, but nobody in my house raised an eyebrow while watching it on a dreary afternoon. “She should have just married him,” my uncle remarked. It’s true. Then, Shivani could have transitioned to the most common category of violence against women, that at the hands of friends, family and acquaintances.
But in the matrix of Bhatti and regular people, home is supposed to be safe, and the streets unsafe. Reel life Shivani and real life Kundu are supposed to attest to this. Given that everyone is in agreement that the streets are filled with stalkers, it should have been easy for Shivani and Kundu to lodge a complaint, be lauded for bravery and get rid of their stalkers forever. But no, Shivani must die. And, Kundu’s intentions must be questioned. Doubly so, since she has refused anonymity. In an interview to The Quint, she refutes all the shaming. “It’s not like I have anything to hide, I did nothing. I am not a victim, I was saved. Shouldn’t the guys who did it be hiding their face? They are the ones who have a reason to actually be ashamed.” I can see my uncle’s head shaking all the way from here.
On August 7, a day-and-a-half after the news came out, BJP spokesperson Shaina NC tweeted a picture of Kundu with two friends, one of whom NC claimed was Barala. (Umrao had also tweeted the same, hours before NC tweeted them.) Thus, suggesting that Kundu’s allegations were false. (Let’s not tell Shaina NC that being in the same frame of a photo with a man doesn’t give him permission to stalk you. It might cause medical harm.)
Brilliant fake news tactic by NC. Pity it didn’t work. The moment Twitterati called out her folly, mocked her because the man in the picture wasn’t Barala, she deleted the tweet and said her account had been hacked. But it didn’t stop here for Kundu. Kuldeep Barala, a relative of Vikas Barala stalked Kundu’s Facebook profile and downloaded a picture of her sitting with a couple of glasses of alcohol. He tried to character assassinate her by suggesting she’s “characterless” for drinking alcohol.
It’s hard not to compare what Kundu is facing today to the compassionate response that a man —an influential co-founder of a talent management and music festival company in Mumbai came out with his own account of being stalked — got recently when he talked about being stalked. On May 8, in a Huffington Post story, Only Much Louder’s co-founder Vijay Nair detailed a terrifying case of cyberstalking. Outrage hit the big league. Twitter lost its shit. Facebook had hangover-esque bouts of vaanthi for over a week. Geeta, the pseudonym given to Nair’s stalker, became an overnight meme and cautionary tale.
Move over Gabbar. We had a “beta, so jaa varna Geeta aa jayegi” as a bedtime ultimatum.
Twitter exploded with solidarity for Nair. No one did the ‘hmm, I just want to be objective’ thing with Nair. Not once was he asked if he stepped out at 12 am. No one character assassinated Nair by looking up pictures of him drinking alcohol. And most importantly, he was never victim-shamed for speaking up about his ordeal.
Nobody called Nair a liar or spread fake news about him. What they did spread was solidarity. And this is how it ought to be. I found it profoundly strange
Both Nair and Kundu’s cases have similarities. For one, both received massive media coverage. Both created waves of shock, but the nature of these shocks differed massively. Kundu’s case created shock because a politician’s son was accused while Nair’s case shocked people because Nair is… a man.
The public apparently needed the massive defamiliarisation of a man being a victim to steep themselves in the horror of the all-too common crime of stalking. The lack of gender neutrality in Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code (which is cited for cases of stalking) suddenly comes under contention for its “unfairness”. It specifically protects women from cases of stalking, not men. (It is also a bailable offence, something that Barala took full advantage of before being arrested again.)
To be fair to Nair himself, in a Facebook post, he acknowledged how his privilege (referring to both his gender and class privilege) helped him fight against the horrifying incident, writing that, “The laws in our country are not perfect but the fact that I am here now, talking about it and on top of the situation is only thanks to my privilege.”
Why do we respond to the same crime differently with men and women? One reason could be that violence against women has been normalised to an extent that it no longer surprises anyone if a woman is raped or stalked. Even with Kundu’s case, most of the hooplah seems to because a politician’s son was accused and not because Kundu was stalked. With Nair, the outrage was centred around him being a man and being stalked by a woman.
Another unusual detail links Nair and Kundu’s cases: the police’s response. Both Nair and Kundu received massive cooperation from the police (the latter’s father is an ex-IAS officer).
To illustrate how unusual this is, here are excerpts from a 2016 TLF story about stalking:
“20th July, Mumbai: A 15-year-old girl is chased and stabbed multiple times at 6.30 am by her stalker. She’d complained to the police about him, but they didn’t take her seriously.
16th July, New Delhi: A 19-year-old woman is chased and stabbed to death by her stalkers in broad daylight. She’d complained to the police about them, but they’d been harassing her to withdraw the complaint. Her mother, the only person who tried to intervene, was stabbed too.
2nd July, Mumbai: A police constable is arrested for stalking a 21-year-old woman.
22nd May, Bhopal: A man who had been stalking a 25-year-old woman threw acid on her face. She spotted her stalker on that day and went to a police station to complain about him. They redirected her to another police station. Minutes later, on her way to the second police station, she was attacked.”
But Kundu and Nair’s investigations differed in the details In Kundu’s case, there is already the suspected erasure of evidence when nine CCTV footages of the car chase, had supposedly “vanished”. (However, 24 hours after reporting the footage as missing, police have now stated that footage has been found and is being used to collect evidence.)
The volume of sympathy for a single case of a male victim of stalking is always higher than the amount of shaming female victims of stalking are subjected to. Sure, Kundu did have support and words of encouragement from Union Minister Harsimran Kaur Badal, MP and actress Kirron Kher among friends and family, but she had to constantly assert her tale of events. And she will for years. And even then there will be people like Shaina NC, barking at her heels wanting to classify her as a ‘so-called victim’, wanting her to be a household name for discredited victims, as Shaina thinks Jasleen Kaur and the Rohtak sisters are.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the outpouring of justified sympathy for Nair’s ordeal that shook me. It was the absolute lack of any skepticism. No female victim is believed with such ease. It is not just that the streets belong to men, that hurts like a stab wound. It is that right to be trusted belongs to men, too.
Co-published with Firstpost.