It used to be fun to drive down the ‘gedi’ routes of Chandigarh once upon a time.
People looked forward to meeting new people, eating a bite or two in the many eateries that hosted the young men and women or even striking up life-long friendships.
But then, as the recent Varnika Kundu case has laid bare, Chandigarh’s ‘gedi’ culture has become symptomatic of a different kind of hunting ground – not happy for most, certainly not girls.
‘Gedi’ by definition is a leisurely trip around town, mostly in cars. The ‘gedi’ routes that span from Sectors 8 to 11 are today noisy, precarious arteries. Speeding cars play blasting music, young men on garishly-coloured bikes perform crazy stunts.
The eateries still make brisk business -- Gusto Kitchen and Kaffe for its scrumptious meals, Dumpling Hood for the melting momos or Super Donuts for the space you have left for dessert.
But ask a woman from Chandigarh what ‘gedi’ routes mean to them and they spit out two words -- stalking and harassment.
While ‘gedi’ routes are unavoidable if you have to be up and about town, women fear Citco parking in Sector 10 the most. They are easy prey in the two parking lots here.
"Historically, ‘gedi’ routes were places where people would meet and socialise. We went there to chill because one knows that you could meet at least 25 people you know," says 29-year-old Kundu, who last week spoke out against the harassment she suffered in the hands of Haryana BJP unit chief Subhash Barala’s son Vikas and his friend Ashish. The duo are now in judicial custody for harassing Varnika, following and trying to block her car on the route, even trying to force one door open.
Her sister Satvika says: “There's isn't a single woman in Chandigarh who has not been stalked on the ‘gedi’ routes." A writer by profession, she too had a similar experience a while ago. She could only throw the hoodlums off her scent by driving to the nearest police station.
"Some boys seem to have forgotten where to draw the line. Socialising on these routes has been going on for a long time, all in good spirit. I know of people who have met on the ‘gedi’ routes and become life-long friends. But today it is all about showing off," she said.
When a collective social behaviour strains at the edges, one looks at the adulterating factors. Entrepreneur Lakshay Arora, all of 23, blames the rich from the neighbouring cities and towns of Punjab and Haryana.
"The rich and wealthy from neighbouring cities misinterpret the socialising ‘gedi’ culture as an invitation to harassment," Lakshay said.
Writer-producer Aakriti Sahdev, 24, who left Chandigarh seven years ago, does not hold back the sarcasm when she says what we see in ‘gedi’ routes is not harassment, but the city’s culture, its history and habit.
‘Pathetic’ and ‘cheap’ are the two adjectives Aakriti reserves for these routes, some of its wide roads flanked by lush gardens and beautiful houses.
“Everyone gets ready, slides into their expensive cars, checks themselves in the tinted side mirrors and is ready for fun. My mother experienced it, as did my elder sister. And it is just not the guys. This culture (read harassment) has been propagated by both men and women,” she says.
Aakriti blames this widespread menace today on the sustained lack of police action. “This culture of stalking started with a few people. The cops should have acted then.”
It’s a vicious circle, the young film producer believes. “The freedom to stalk has been allowed to continue unabated till it became a callous culture,” she said.
A 21-year-old student recalled how it affected her when she was stalked some months ago. “A group of men harassed me on one of the ‘gedi’ routes, followed me around and kept pestering me for my number,” she said. What happened to consent? “Stalking is not romance, however Bollywood might want to portray it,” she added. She spoke of the recent flick ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’, where Akshay Kumar’s male lead is seen stalking and filming the woman he is in love with.
“Our filmmakers need to realise that there is no consent in stalking. They should stop garbing romance in a form that denotes sexual crime,” she added.
Aakriti agrees: “Blockbusters are made in India for the easy consumption of the lowest common factor. A recent film ultimately gave the message that it was all about anti-dowry, but in the last 15 minutes. But throughout the film, however, the male protagonist – loved and followed by so many – seemed to make a case in favour of dowry only for the twist at the end. How much of the story’s end, if it plays out only for a fraction of its length, will sink in?”
Varnika’s father, IAS officer Virender Kundu, wondered when the boundaries of decency got breached in the ‘gedi’ culture. “The dynamics of that region has become complex with outsiders and casual visitors. A lot of hooliganism takes place here. Boys do dangerous stunts like wheelies and drifts to show off. Officers are aware but they perceive these stunts as harmless – a kind of youthful release of energy. But the general behaviour now borders on the criminal. Aggressive and vulgar confrontations are the norm. But the girl’s will needs to be respected,” he said.
Stalking was declared a criminal offence in 2013 after former President Pranab Mukherjee signed an ordinance to help laws dealing with sexual violence against women.
Incidents of stalking are not new in Chandigarh. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 2015, 13 victims in Chandigarh had reported incidents of stalking....