Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao is a strong slogan to shake up a son-obsessed country, where female foeticide continues despite a law criminalising it, leading to a dangerously distorted child sex ratio. Soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a nationwide campaign from Haryana’s Panipat district with those ringing words. The next census will show to what extent the campaign has achieved its goals.
It’s time, however, to turn the spotlight on some critical questions that remain unanswered: what happens when an educated Indian beti grows up to be a spirited, assertive individual with a mind of her own, and what happens when she fights for her space and place in the sun?
The answer is there for all to see in the unfolding story of Varnika Kundu, a woman in her 20s, who was stalked by a young man and his friend as she was driving home late one night last week. Unless you have been living under a stone, you know the story.
But here’s a brief recap. Ms Kundu, 29, a disc jockey, told the police two men followed her last Friday night for almost half an hour in their SUV as she was driving home. In the middle of Chandigarh, they blocked her car several times, though she tried to dodge them. At one point, they even tried to force open her car door. She called the police and shared details of her ordeal on her Facebook page. Ms Kundu’s travails have struck a chord among India’s urban middle class. The story has also stayed on the front pages because her father is a senior IAS officer and one of the young men in the dock is Vikas Barala, son of Haryana BJP chief Subhash Barala. The other is Vikas’s friend Ashish.
Ms Kundu says the men were intent on abducting her and she was saved only by timely police intervention. The police booked Vikas and Ashish for stalking and drunken driving. Stalking is punishable with one to three years in jail.
There are lots of charges and denials about the investigation, whether it is being unduly influenced by politicians, whether CCTV footage is available and so on. The case will take its own course.
But amid all the noise, one thing is clear. Varnika Kundu is not the “educated beti” begging for sympathy. She wants justice. She has supportive parents, has been brought up to be independent and is perfectly comfortable telling her story in her own name.
She is also not going to be deterred by trolls, including politicians, who are playing the nudge-nudge, wink-wink game, asking why she was out late at night and whether she knew alleged stalker Barala.
By her statements and action, Ms Kundu has rattled those who are deeply uncomfortable when a woman uses her education to bolster her case and lay bare the ugly underbelly of a still deeply patriarchal society.
From the very first day, she made it clear she was conscious of her privileged position. “I find it shocking, that in a place with cameras at every light and cops every 200 metres, these boys thought they could either get into my car, or take me into theirs, just because they’re from an influential background. I’m lucky, it seems, to not be the daughter of a common man, because what chance would they have against such VIPs?” Her statement also raised an obvious question: would the cops have responded similarly had it been a woman who knew no influential person?
Ms Kundu has got huge support from many people. A hashtag campaign has taken off — #aintnocindrella — with women tweeting photographs of themselves out in the street at night.
But the reactions of some of the political class tells you why talk of women’s empowerment is just talk for regressive patriarchs. Ever since Ms Kundu took a stand against the men who stalked her, fake images attempting to prejudice the public against her have been circulated on the social media. A BJP spokesperson did so, and later claimed her account was hacked. A Modi government minister tried to peddle the line that Barala chasing Kundu in a drunken state was all part of midnight mischief or the proverbial “Boy Chase Girl” familiar to college students, as he put it.
This in a country where, by the government’s own admission, stalking cases have showed a consistent rise in the last three years. In 2014, there were 4,699 cases. Last year, it had shot up to 7,132. Convictions remain a minuscule fraction of the total registered cases.
Another BJP leader garnished the time-worn tactic of blaming the girl by saying that it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure their daughters come home “on time” and “not roam outside till late”. Facing flak, the party leadership has now tried to distance itself from that remark.
The malaise isn’t confined to the BJP. Who can forget Mulayam Singh Yadav’s 2014 ‘boys will be boys’ remark trivialising rape?
Social media trolls won’t easily give up their vicious whisper campaign against Ms Kundu. But hearteningly, she and her family are unlikely to buckle down.
What gives hope is that more and more young women across the country, and not just from privileged sections, are refusing to cave in to the social conservatism that tries to suppress their personal and professional aspirations. Earlier this year, girl students of a government school in Haryana’s Rewari district went on a hungerstrike to force the state government to upgrade their school to a senior secondary school. They wanted the upgrade from Class 10 to 12 as they were being harassed by men on motorcycles as they travelled to a school in a neighbouring village. Their tenacity paid off.
As betis are educated, some of them get more assertive about their fundamental rights, and this makes many in our patriarchal society deeply uncomfortable. The good news is that this is the way it should be; this is the way to social change.