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Varnika Kundu: 'My fight is to make women fearless'

Last updated on: August 11, 2017 13:07 IST

 

'I live in a privileged city, I have a privileged life, I was in a car.'
'If it can happen here, then there is literally no hope for women in rural India or smaller cities.'
'If more women think we can help ourselves, we can survive, and men would be a lot more hesitant to try something like this.'

IMAGE: DJ Varnika Kundu at her job.
Photograph: Kind courtesy Varnika Kundu

On Thursday, August 10, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Haryana president Subhash Barala's son Vikas Barala and his friend Ashish Kumar were remanded to two days in police custody by a Chandigarh court in the alleged stalking and attempt to abduct case of 29-year-old Varnika Kundu.

A freelance deejay, Varnika says she is yet to find the time and space to process what happened on the night of August 5, come to terms with it, and find closure.

The feisty young woman refuses to let fear define her, for she says, that is when the men would have won.

Varnika says she has now found the strength, courage and forbearance to get justice, not for her, but for every woman, who has reached out and shared their own horror stories.

Varnika Kundu, in conversation with Rediff.com's Swarupa Dutt.

The accused, Vikas Barala and Ashish Kumar, have been arrested and are in police custody. Do you believe you will now get justice and what does justice mean to you?

I'm extremely hopeful now. It seems like it will be very difficult for these guys to get away.

Honestly, that night, I was amazed that something like this can happen in such a privileged situation, so to speak.

I live in a privileged city, I have a privileged life, I was in a car.

If it can happen here, then there is literally no hope for women in rural India or smaller cities.

They literally thought they can come and pick me up.

Justice is to give these guys the punishment that will deter them from doing this again. That will make them understand that this is a crime.

But real justice, in the deeper sense would be if these guys are made an example out of so that other men don't follow in their lead.

Had I been hurt or injured, vengeance would have been justice.

I wasn't, so this is not about me.

I have been getting messages on social media from women saying they have been in similar situations. That they were too afraid to file a case then, but were considering it now.



So you are in a sense a catalyst for other women to get justice?

Absolutely. It has now become all the women like me versus all the men like them.

Do you feel a sense of responsibility now towards the other women since you believe this also about them?

Yes. I'm not sure how I'm going fulfil this responsibility. I'm thinking about it.

It has to be done, but I don't know yet, what it will be or how I will do it.

Have you ever been stalked before? There is something called the Geri route culture in Chandigarh, isn't there?

I think every girl in Chandigarh has at one point or the other been followed by guys in a car.

The Geri Route certainly has something to do with this. But I won't say it's entirely about stalking.

Till that night, men and women doing the Geri route was that basically the men see you, follow you around and stay there till you become paranoid and call someone.

When they see you do that, they back off and leave.

The intention in those cases is only to follow you.

They feel, 'If we follow her, she will talk, laugh, it will be all fun and games'.

I really have never thought about why men do this, but usually they just follow you around for a while.

Of course, if they do it for too long, the girl will call the police. Or go to a familiar place or call for help.

I have been followed before by guys in a car.

Every woman in Chandigarh, irrespective of age, has had that experience. My mother's friend told us of an incident that happened to her.

But this is the first time that someone has actually got out of their vehicle and tried to open my car door.

How many times have you had to call the police before this incident?

Who remembers? I mean, every woman has gone through this in Chandigarh.

I don't think you can even realise what it is if you are from a place like Mumbai.

When one was young, one would do the Geri route and check out guys and think how exciting this was. But as you grow older you realise how wrong this is.

What happens is the men will come in their car, the women will come in their car and they basically just check each other out.

I've grown out of it. A lot of times, men and women have ended up dating also.

Will you set a 'curfew' for yourself after this incident? Carry weapons?

I come home late at night since I work as a DJ. I will carry pepper spray. I wouldn't impose a 'curfew'.

The whole point is to get rid of the fear that guys like this has instilled in us.

So if I let the fear stop me from living my life or let it define my life, then these guys have won.

Whether or not they go to jail, or get the punishment they deserve, they would have won because I'm afraid now.

#AintNoCinderella is exactly what this movement is about. About women not being afraid to go out at night.

Do you have faith in the system? No blood-alcohol tests were carried out at the time of the incident. Isn't that a dilution of evidence?

I don't want to comment on the evidence or the investigations, but yes, I do have faith in the system because we have seen a lot of positive developments in the case.

Do you fear for your life? You are taking on powerful people?
Do you think you will regret filing the complaint and setting in motion your quest for justice?

Right now I feel extremely safe and protected because of the media attention and the spotlight on the case.

Of course, I feel a little anxious. All of us do. But I hope it doesn't come to that (fearing for her life).

How important is public pressure? Public interest, media interest in the case, will wane.
Do you think you can see this through to the end?

We are in this till the end. My family. All of us.

If we give up and don't follow through, then everything has been for nothing.

There is no way we are backing out.

Do you believe punishment will stop further crime?

Honestly, punishing those guys is just to make an example out of them so that other men will learn their lesson.

That being said, I don't think punishing these two men can actually change the entire system. Maybe it will intimidate other men a little bit.

My fight is to make women fearless.

If more women think 'we can help ourselves, we can survive', then men would be a lot more hesitant to try something like this.

Would it be fair to say if the accused weren't politically connected, this would have been dismissed as just another incident?

Yes, of course. It's a blessing in disguise that he is from an influential family.

It's the only reason it's made news and if it had not made news, the whole movement of empowering women to own the streets, to not be frightened, the #aintnocinderella movement would not have happened.

The end is?

Punishment. Even if it takes years. We are prepared for that.

IMAGE: Accused Vikas Barala and Ashish Kumar being taken to jail, August 9, 2017. Photograph: ANI

Had you known who the accused were at the time of filing the complaint, would you have still gone ahead?

Yes. We didn't stop to consider whether we should or should not file a complaint.

There was no other option for us because guys like these just cannot... there is no chance that they can be allowed to.. roam free and pull something like this again.

We never even really thought about it. It did not really matter who he was because we would have gone ahead and filed the complaint anyway.

The prime accused's father, Subhash Barala, has called you his daughter. The Opposition has asked that he resign.

I have been maintaining from the beginning that this case has nothing to do with politics.

Whether or not he keeps his current office (president of the BJP's Haryana unit) doesn't really affect me.

This is about men like his son, not him.

Have you been able to find closure?

If you ask me to recall the incident, I can do it unemotionally.

But every time I think about it... I've just been crying a lot. It's also because I haven't had time and space to to process what happened that night.

This incident has suddenly assumed international proportions and I haven't had time for closure, to think about myself.

I haven't gone to bed before 5 am since this happened with the incessant line-up of interviews.

So that night, when you first realised they were tailing you, did you feel this was just another incident?

Well, they were driving parallelly to me the entire time, not really tailing me. And like I said, I've had guys tailing me, but I knew this was different.

It was intense from the word go. It wasn't just a couple of guys following me for what they think is harmless fun.

All the times before I never felt the need to file a complaint, but this time I had no second thoughts.

That fear that I felt... when they kept following me I knew this was different.

Nobody tried to stop me before. My only thought was that I needed to escape and get to safety.

How far were you from home at the time of the incident?

Maybe 10, 12 kilometres. This happened in Chandigarh, I live in a town called Panchkula.

Do you draw inspiration from the Nitish Katara or the Jessica Lal case?

You know what, to be really honest, from the night that happened to now, I have really had no time to even think.

Everything that I'm doing is just coming to me naturally. Going to file the complaint, going to meet the police, all of that.

The Facebook post that I put up was to inform my friends that Chandigarh might not be that safe any more.

I've never really thought that that this has happened before, so I should follow in the lead of women who have set an example.

Do you think comments like 'dented painted women' by Congress leader Abhijit Mukherjee and Mulayam Singh Yadav's 'boys will be boys', encourage crimes against women?

I don't want to comment on the political angle or politicians, because anything I say can be misconstrued.

I think we are conditioned to accept men behaving like this. I used to walk to tennis practice when I was nine years old.

Men would drive by putting their hands out of their cars trying to touch me, a lot of times successfully. Or there would be guys exposing themselves on the road.

And you think, OK, at least he's not inflicting actually bodily harm. So OK, let's ignore it.

That's the mistake. Women and men need to change. It's really not OK anymore.

Your father has been by your side throughout this ordeal. Would you have had the strength and the courage to fight this case without his support?

He is fighting much harder than I am.

He is constantly thinking about the case. He is shouldering all the responsibility.

He is taking on much of the burden that I would probably have to deal with.

And there is no way I would have done this without his support.

If that night, instead of coming with me to lodge the police complaint, he would have said, 'You know what, the guys are gone, you are safe. Just forget it and come home', I would have.

So, he was actually the one who gave me the strength to do this. If my family hadn't supported me I wouldn't have come this far.

He's a bureaucrat with the Chandigarh government; do you believe there will be retribution by the government?

Umm. Well, right now we feel pretty safe.

What's your day like after this incident?

Just cameras. Just interviews. All the time.

I have just about begun to find it a little intrusive.

Print is fine, but TV is a whole different ball game, a whole different kind of pressure.

So far I don't have a regular life. I was interviewed till 3 am, 4 am. Now it's been getting easier.

But you see my entire family works all day. My sister handles my phone, my dad handles some of the interviews I can't do.

At any point now, there are at least 50 people in the house. My mom takes care of the house.

Then at the end of the day, we try to find time to just sit together and update each other on our day, on any new developments, any news reports, in the case. It’s exhausting

What's your biggest takeaway from all this?

Honestly, it's the support. It's overwhelming.

Every night I get into bed to sleep and I can't because I'm completely swamped by the messages of support.

There is so much love, people reaching out to me, to tell me they are there with me.

But I think even better, is that women are actually coming forward to speak out and file complaints.

That is actually real change.

I mean I cannot believe that all of this is happening because of this one incident.

Swarupa Dutt