We will fight on

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Protest against Chandigarh stalking case in Chandigarh.Believe it or not, it was a chocolate. A Silk Oreo, to be precise. It was an innocuous chocolate that changed Varnika Kundu’s life forever and may end up bettering a lot of thousands of women across the country. Countless women suffer stalking and harassment on a daily basis, similar to what Varnika had to face in Chandigarh on the intervening night of August 4-5, but silently. Varnika and her father have chosen to speak out and take her high-profile stalkers to the task, not just to get justice for her, but also to make an example of a collective mindset which rules a patriarchal feudal India and fosters such unsavoury incidents.

Chandigarh’s first woman DJ Varnika continued to lash out bravely for days against her stalkers resulting in the re-arrest of the accused and slapping of an attempt to abduction charges against them. Her fearless voice, her refusal to back down, unified scores of Indian women in protest and anger and in poured mass support, which made her detractors retreat in a hurry from the usual attempts at victim shaming and character assassination to dilute the case. “The entire country supported me within a matter of hours. I had never dreamt that I would ever be trending above Game of Thrones on Twitter”, says Varnika smilingly.

Varnika is supported by her father who stood like a rock behind her throughout the episode. Virender Kundu, a senior Haryana cadre IAS officer did not know the odds they were up against when they first went to the police station to register a case against the two accused, Vikas Barala and his friend Ashish Kumar. Vikas is the son of the Haryana BJP president Subhash Barala. A BJP spokesperson reached the station itself and tried to persuade Kundu against registering a complaint referring to the accused belonging to the same ‘clan’ as Kundu. He then urged Virender Kundu to talk to Subhash Barala who kept calling Kundu repeatedly but the pained father insisted on going ahead with the complaint. “A crime has been committed, what apology can there be for a crime, only justice can atone for it, and if I, with many resources at my disposal cannot stand by my daughter, what can be expected from the common man, “says Virender Kundu.

The following is Varnika Kundu’s account of the incident.

Where were you coming from on the fateful night?

Back to the chocolate

It was raining on the evening of August 3, a night prior to the incident. I had stopped at the 24 X 7 store at the sector 7 petrol pump to buy my favourite chocolate(haven’t eaten it yet). I ran out to the store, bought the chocolate and ran back to the car only to find it locked and the key missing. I was unable to locate the key so I left the car there. The following morning at 7 am, I drove back to the petrol pump in another car, with a duplicate key. I had also rung up a tow truck in case the key had broken and was stuck inside the lock. However, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Must have dropped the key while dashing about to buy the chocolate in the rain. With two cars on hand I decided to drive back home leaving one of the cars parked in the sector 8 market. Dad came back from his meeting late in the evening and his driver dropped me off at the sector 8 market. I was returning home in my car when the accused pulled up next to me at a traffic light.

Tehelka Varnika 3What happened that night?

The ordeal

I didn’t care at first, I turned right and they turned with me and swerved towards my car. I exclaimed but thought it could be by accident or probably the driver is drunk. I glanced at them and they were laughing. I immediately looked away because apparently if you ‘look at men’ it’s thought that you are ‘interested’ in them. However, I started feeling uneasy when they didn’t let me turn at the next turn. I noted down the car number. They then trapped and blocked my car, one of them jumped out to bang on my car window. I reversed and sped away. It was not annoying any more, it was scary.

They chased me and tried to bang into my car from the side. I was very frightened by now and immediately dialed 100 to notify the police. Thereafter I felt comforted because I knew you can always rely on the PCR in Chandigarh, they will come and promptly. But the guys got crazier by the minute; they blocked me in the extreme left lane, between the divider and their car. Ashish, who was sitting on the passenger seat with the door half open, was waiting for me to stop so that he could jump out and pry open my door again. Then I ran into a traffic light with other cars blocking my way. He jumped out again and started to try to open my door aggressively. And to my relief the cops appeared just then and I sped off, not even waiting for the cops to catch them.

Why the decision to file a case? Families prefer to hush such cases themselves for fear of censure.

Gritty upbringing

I have been brought up as an individual vis a vis the typical Indian girl. I have a mind and personality of my own and have been encouraged by my family to live life with dignity and freedom. I am not a flower, to be kept hidden at my house. My father, especially, has been very supportive of my choices; he encouraged me to take up music as a profession. After my graduation, I took up a course in audio engineering to learn music production and I am a freelance Disc Jockey. I travel a lot, road trips being my special passion.

The decision to press for charges wasn’t even debated; it felt the natural thing to do. For us, to bring the culprits to justice was the only thing to do, to make an example out of them. I couldn’t bear the fact that they could do something so disgusting and get away with it only to get emboldened and repeat it with other women. No, we couldn’t and didn’t want to back out. And despite pressure, my father did not think a compromise could even be a possibility. I want justice. Unfortunate for them, probably found the one girl they shouldn’t have messed with!

Did you realiae who you were up against? Aren’t you from a privileged background too?

Taking on the high and mighty

We knew the minute we were told about the identity of the accused that this will be a long hard fight. You seriously think my father or I stand anywhere in front of the ruling party bosses in their own state? Whatever privilege I had went out the window the moment the political lineage of the accused was known. I survived to tell the tale and the whole country took up my case but not because of me being a civil servant’s daughter. It was because of my intent. To start a movement to empower women so that men would think long and hard before trying this. Especially men with a sense of ‘entitlement’ around them.

I knew there could be a danger. My father warned me about it. I knew I would face questions and censure. When the accused’s family tried to start a slander campaign against me on social media, it backfired on them. What could you achieve by putting up pictures of me with my friends? Why ask me why I was out at midnight? Tumhe pata hai tumhare ladke kya kar rahe thhey raat ko, unko poocho, mujhe nahi. Why focus on my ‘character’? Was I the one drinking and terrorizing girls on the roads?

Attempts were made to look as if I knew the accused. Maine unki shakal kabhi pehle nahi dekhi. Mera role is incident mein itna thaa ki main galat jagah pe, galat ladko se takra gayi. Aur meri sabse badi galti mera ladki hona thaa. The police stated initially that no CCTV footage could be retrieved and we felt that the pressure could be on. The charges against the accused were initially lighter in nature. However, later police could recover enough coverage to slap a case of attempt to abduction against the accused. So yes, it will be an uphill task.

Do you still feel as buoyant as you did initially? Biggest positive so far?

#AintNoCinderella

This Twitter hash tag swung things around like nothing else. When women all over the country started posting selfies of themselves out at night using this hash tag, I knew a movement has started. I implore all women to please continue this fight; please don’t let this die down. This is an opportunity to change how women are treated in India. We are treated like second grade citizens. Enough is enough! We can change things now. Please speak up as one and do not stop fighting. And yes, it is a small and heartening step towards getting justice as the accused have been
re-arrested by the Chandigarh police and charged with offenses commensurate with their crime.

What are your feelings as of today? Are you optimistic or are the odds weighing on your mind?

Blessings in disguise

The fact that I have undergone this ordeal and the political angle in this case are, in fact, blessings in disguise. If this dimension didn’t exist media and other segments of society may not have cared so much and I wouldn’t have so many people fighting alongside me.

That night I was terrified but today I am so glad this happened; now I hope every girl in my situation would get the same attention and support. Never thought I would be going viral for such an important cause. It is a cause very close to my heart, I have ranted about it on social media for so long. Having been brought up with complete freedom, it infuriates me that women spend so much of their lives being controlled and being told what to do and what not to do.

That night it was about bringing those boys to justice, now it is about them and everyone who thinks like them. Sexual harassment and eve teasing start in our society when we are young. And is so prevalent that when the abuse is minor in nature, we are merely relieved that it was just that and not more.

Look at the brazen attitude of the stalkers, they were at the traffic lights, amidst people, they could see a PCR van heading towards them but did they care? No, they were busy laughing and banging on my door, trying to pry it open. Intent only on finishing what they set out to do! It’s chilling that women have to face this every day. See it is clear the boys thought they could get away with it. This is a mindset that I now have an opportunity to change.

What kind of challenges do you foresee in the future?

Road ahead

If this movement succeeds it’s not going to be about these two boys anymore, it’s going to be about women empowerment in the real sense. When women realise that the onus of such incidents does not lie on them. That they have to stop answering questions and the men better start answering them. Everything changes when women don’t take these things lying down. The only thing that can help is when women understand that we have to stand up for ourselves, once we start protesting loudly, men will understand our zero tolerance for such episodes. And the road ahead for me and my family is by no means smooth. It will be challenging and the odds are high but we don’t intend to give up, ever! We will keep fighting.

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