It was an event at once chilling and banal. Late on Friday night on the roads in Chandigarh, a young woman was stalked and harrassed by two young men in an SUV, one of the accused the son of an influential politician of the party that rules Haryana. The two were arrested but charges against them were diluted. While the woman alleged an attempt to kidnap, they were booked only for the relatively milder charges of stalking and wrongful restraint, and bail was quickly granted. For her, the harrowing ordeal goes on, after the ordeal. There is victim-shaming: Why was she out on the streets alone, so late, she is asked, while the political party rallies protectively around the accused. Yet not all the elements of this sordid episode — that could be a replay of countless such dramas featuring young women and power-drunk men on other roads in our cities — seem foretold. At least two stand out: With great courage and dignity, the woman has broken the silence expected from, and foisted on, the victim in such cases. She has taken to social media to describe what happened to her on that Friday night in meticulous, horrifying detail. Her father, a senior bureaucrat in the Haryana government, has also spoken out, also on social media, with anger, and a poignant awareness of his own vulnerability in the system he is part of, and is taking on: “The goons must be punished and the law must take its course… Someone has to stand up. We are standing. So long as we can”, he wrote.
The BJP, as the party the father of the accused, Subhash Barala, belongs to, is accountable. Admittedly, as Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has been quick to point out, Subhash Barala cannot be punished for the alleged crime of his son, Vikas. But at the same time, the climate of permissiveness and impunity that the son apparently benefits from because of his father’s position and influence in the party, must not be allowed to prevail. The onus is squarely on the BJP to ensure that in this case, justice is not only done, but also seen to be done. The tamping down of the charges in the FIR, the public insinuations against the victim, have already sent out signals that are starkly at odds with the party’s own slogans and campaigns on the empowerment of women in a state known for raging gender discrimination and inequalities.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 defined stalking as an offence, one of the charges against Vikas Barala. But that is not all that changed after the December 16 case of 2012. Hopefully, the true legacy of the case that resonated throughout the country and awakened our collective conscience to the sheer dailiness and great enormity of crimes against women, is that they will no longer be denied or swept under any carpet — not in Delhi, nor in Chandigarh.