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Chandigarh stalking: Haryana police accused of cover-up

Activists demand BJP leader's removal accusing him of putting pressure on police to drop kidnapping charges against son.

Subhash Barala

Women's rights campaigners and opposition leaders in India have accused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Haryana state of putting pressure on police to protect a ruling party official's son, who was accused of attempted kidnapping and sexual assault.

People on social media voiced outrage after Vikas Barala, the 23-year-old son of the BJP's state president Subhash Barala, was released on bail following a brief arrest on charges of stalking and drunk driving.

Jagmati Sangwan, the head of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) called for the resignation of Subhash, claiming he had pressured police to drop charges of attempted kidnapping and sexual assault against his son.

Sangwan accused the BJP leader of "political interference" in the police probe. The Haryana state is ruled by the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has so far not commented on the issue.

Hundreds took part in protests across the state on Monday and burned effigies of Barala, Sangwan said.

The case is at the centre of a media storm in India, where scrutiny of sexual violence has grown since the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student in New Delhi.

It began on Saturday when 29-year-old Varnika Kundu said she was nearly kidnapped while driving in Chandigarh, the capital of Haryana.

In a widely shared Facebook post, she said two men in a car had followed her as she drove home around midnight on Friday, blocked her path and attempted to force open the doors of her car.

Kundu, the daughter of a senior Haryana bureaucrat, said she was rescued by the police.

The two suspects included Vikas and his friend Ashish Kumar, 27, local media reported.

They were arrested but freed within hours on bail, and face charges of stalking and drunk driving - a bailable offense.

Kundu and AIDWA want the police to press the harsher charges of attempted kidnapping and sexual assault against the suspects.

"I'm also lucky, because I'm not lying raped and murdered in a ditch somewhere," Kundu wrote on her Facebook page.

Police in Chandigarh, however, have denied allegations of political pressure.

"We are looking into the matter from all the perspectives," said Eish Sehgal, a police spokesman, told reporters on Monday. "We don't want to investigate the matter under any pressure."

Victim-blaming

Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana state, dismissed calls for Subhash's resignation and said justice would prevail.

"The accused will be punished once found guilty," he said.

Kirron Kher, a BJP member who represents Chandigarh in India's parliament, meanwhile denied media reports that CCTV footage along the roads Kundu drove had gone missing.

The police said it was looking into the matter, the ANI news agency said. 

Ramveer Bhatti, Barala's deputy, meanwhile invited derision, when he, in an interview with CNN-News18 TV, questioned why Kundu was "roaming around at night".

Sangwan, the women's rights campaigner, criticised what she called victim blaming by BJP officials, saying it was sending a "very damaging signal to the women of India".  

"They are all commenting on her character. What about their son?" she asked.

"We are demanding a public apology from [the BJP], and the removal of Barala because he himself is intervening in the police's work. We also want charges of kidnapping and sexual assault against his son," she said.

AIDWA plans to hold protests on Tuesday and Wednesday, too, she said.

Bhatti's comments also ignited social media in India. The hashtag ChandigarhStalking was the top trend on Twitter all through the day on Monday.

Opposition parties meanwhile joined the call for Barala's resignation, also accusing him of a cover-up.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress, said the BJP must not "collude" with the suspects and the mindset they represent.

Kundu's father, Virender Kundu, who works at the Haryana tourism department, said obtaining justice for his daughter was not going to be easy.

"Influential families can sometimes take desperate measures to discredit or disable the complainants," he said in a Facebook post on Sunday.

He added: "I feel if people with some privileges like us cannot stand up to such criminals, nobody in India can."


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