Two days after Haryana Bharatiya Janata Party chief Subhash Barala’s son and a friend were arrested – and released on bail within hours – in connection with stalking a 29-year-old woman for nearly seven kilometres in their car in Chandigarh, questions were being raised on Monday about seeming attempts by the Chandigarh police to dilute the case against the two men.
The accused, Vikas Barala, 23, and his friend Ashish Kumar followed the woman, Varnika Kundu, in their SUV while she was driving from Chandigarh to nearby Panchkula on Friday night. Around 12.15 am, she noticed that the two men were tailing her in a white Tata Safari. After they repeatedly tried to force her to pull over, she called the police control room, according to a post she wrote on Facebook. Media reports later quoted police officials saying that a medical examination had confirmed that both Barala and Kumar were drunk at the time of the incident.
In her complaint, attached with the First Information Report, which Scroll.in has seen, Kundu has accused the two men of harassment and an attempt to kidnap her. She described how they tried to intercept her car at least three times that night. When the men finally managed to force her to stop, they emerged from their vehicle and started pulling at the door handle of her car, which was locked. Following this, according to the complaint, the woman quickly reversed her car and managed to get away. At this point, the police intercepted the car of her stalkers, according to news reports.
Despite these details, the police have so far invoked charges under Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the act of stalking – a bailable offence with a maximum punishment of three years for the first conviction. It has not charged the two men for attempted abduction, which is a non-bailable offence and carries a maximum punishment of three-and-a-half years.
The police are seeking legal opinion on the matter, Deputy Superintendent of Chandigarh Police (East) Satish Kumar told reporters on Sunday.
On Monday morning, it emerged that Closed Circuit Television footage from five locations along the route on which the woman was chased had gone missing, DNA reported.
Speaking over the phone, the 29-year-old complainant said: “I do not have a very good understanding of the law. But what I can still say is that if the police work in a way that they are supposed to, such criminals [referring to her case] can never evade the law.”
Attempts to dilute charges?
Former Union Minister and Congress leader Manish Tewari accused the Chandigarh Police of diluting the case under political pressure. Tewari was part of a committee under the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government that amended Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code to ensure that offenders were punished for molesting, stalking and leering at women.
According to criminal lawyers, the details of the woman’s complaint could have attracted charges that are more stringent than just the stalking section that has been applied at the moment.
“The case undoubtedly qualifies for stalking,” said Bidit Deka, a Delhi-based advocate.
The Indian Penal Code defines stalking as an act in which any man follows a woman and contacts, or repeatedly attempts to contact the woman to foster personal interaction, despite a clear indication of disinterest by the woman. It is a bailable offence, which is punishable with imprisonment upto three years for the first conviction, and upto five years, in the second and subsequent convictions.
However, Deka added that the charge of attempted abduction should have also been taken into consideration. “That would have made a lot of difference,” he said. “Unlike stalking, the charge of attempt of abduction would be non-bailable.”
Deka said that in this case, the complaint said that the perpetrators aggressively chased the woman, went on to intercept her car after several failed attempts, and finally approached her and tried to open her car door. “Here, the intent of the perpetrator should have been taken into consideration,” said Deka. “Clearly they had something in mind and the complainant was correct in mentioning that in her statement. There is significant room to believe that it was an attempt to abduct her or to commit some heinous offence.”
Explaining how the law worked with regard to attempted abduction, Deka said Section 365, which deals with abduction, must be read with Section 511, which deals with attempt to commit offences that are punishable with imprisonment. Since abduction is a non-bailable offence, an attempt to commit the offence would also be non-bailable. This is how Section 511 works, said Deka.
While abduction is punishable with a maximum imprisonment of seven years, attempt to commit the offence could lead to a punishment extending for a period up to one half of the maximum punishment for the concerned offence. The punishment for attempted abduction is therefore three-and-half years, said Deka.
While allegations that the police had attempted to dilute the case were yet to die down, senior BJP leaders of Haryana unit have attempted to shame Kundu. In a report, CNN-News18 quoted the party’s vice-president in Haryana Unit, Ramveer Bhatti saying, “The girl should not have gone out at 12 in the night. Why was she driving so late in the night? The atmosphere is not right. We need to take care of ourselves.”
Many took to Twitter to condemn these remarks.
Kundu criticised these comments.
“Are they [BJP leaders] trying to say that men who are safe to hang out with in the day hours suddenly turn into monsters at night,” she said. “Do they mean that women should keep themselves locked in their houses because such monsters are on the loose in the night hours? It is them [the perpetrators] who should be questioned and not women.”