On the morning the news of the Chandigarh stalking case broke, most journalists took a moment to wonder if Varnika Kundu’s name should be used in reports since it’s illegal to name the victim of certain kinds of crimes unless the survivor explicitly allows it. Early reports from August 5 mentioned that two men, one of them Vikas Barala, the son of BJP Haryana state chief Subhash Barala, had stalked a woman in Chandigarh and tried to force their way into her car. Varnika had taken to Facebook to talk about her ordeal. Soon enough, it became clear that Varnika Kundu was not choosing to hide her identity in this case, because, as she says, she had nothing to hide.
In the last 10 days, Kundu’s house has been packed with reporters, eager to talk to her about every possible aspect of this case: The minute details of what happened, the reactions she got, what she plans to do next. She’s done live interviews, televised debates and has been so swamped by reporters that her sister answers her phone and gives appointments to reporters.
Over a phone conversation from Chandigarh, the 29-year-old DJ sounds like she’s still coming to grips with the whirlwind of the last week.
She says that going public with her identity was less an active choice she made, and more the accidental side-effect of posting a Facebook status that went viral. She says she took to Facebook to talk about her ordeal to let other women in Chandigarh know that this kind of thing could happen to anyone, but never dreamed that it would be picked up by the media the way it was. After her post went viral, she says she realised she is something of a public figure now and had a huge platform to talk about the issues she cared for. “I was looking back at my old Facebook posts and saw that I’ve written so many things about women’s rights. Now, I realised I could make a real change. I first heard about the #AintNoCinderella hashtag during an interview. I immediately had tears in my eyes.”
#AintNoCinderella was a hashtag that took Twitter by storm a few days after her stalking ordeal made national headlines. After a round of politicians asked the usual questions about why she was out at midnight, women from all over the world used the hashtag #AintNoCinderella on social media to assert that the streets belonged to them too, and no grown woman should have a midnight curfew to keep.
Still, it definitely wasn’t all saucy hashtags and smooth sailing: Kundu says she realises that she’s going to make changes to her own. “I can’t go to protests anymore because if someone raises an anti-BJP slogan and I’m also at the protest, the whole thing will be blown out proportion.” Kundu says she isn’t a talkative person but has had to reconfigure what she wants while giving dozens of interviews over the last two weeks. She says she found it frustrating when reporters would ask her if she thought the perpetrator’s father, Haryana BJP chief Subhash Barala, should resign, or if it was a political problem because she’s said several times that she doesn’t think this is political at all.
And now, after all the interviews she’s given and everything that’s been written about her, she says there isn’t anything more the public needs to know about Varnika Kundu. That is, she infers an annoying thing, but also a good thing. At the good end of the reportage, she’s referring in particular to a Hindustan Times piece titled Breaking barriers: How DJ Varnika Kundu stood up to VIP stalkers in Chandigarh. As far as writing on survivors of violent crimes goes, it is a pretty remarkable article, and it’s reflective of one of the interesting parts about being able to use the survivor’s identity when writing about them. Instead of just endlessly reporting on the trauma she underwent, the report talks about her career as a DJ (she opened for electronic musician Nucleya last November), the inspiration behind her musical moniker ‘Miracle Drugg’, her black belt in Choi Kwang Do, the values she and her writer sister were raised with, and her love for different kinds of music. These kind of details humanise the survivor and remind you that the violence was enacted onto a real person. It also makes for reportage that’s more truthful to the survivor — that her life is more than just being a survivor — and allows journalists to paint a more evocative picture of a person, creating a lasting memory in the minds of readers.
This kind of reportage on survivors of violence against women is rare. Partly because the media usually zeros in on the violence and refuses to let go unless it is to be obsessed with whether it’s ‘political’ or some other assumption of material gain on the part of the survivor. Partly because very few survivors decide to make their identities public.
In India, it has been illegal for decades to reveal the identity of a victim of certain crimes, including sexual assault, in the media, unless the survivor explicitly allows it. The muzzle on using survivors’ names dates back to an infamous 1979 case called Tuka Ram And Anr vs State Of Maharashtra, better known as the Mathura case, where a judge ruled that a minor Adivasi girl had not been raped by two policeman inside a police station as she was “habituated to sexual intercourse”. The ruling was so outrageous that legal academic Upendra Baxi, and three other lawyers wrote an open letter (which only found publication in a Pakistani newspaper) denouncing the judgement and demanding a retrial. That didn’t happen. But in the course of all the cross-country outrage, the survivor’s identity was made so public that she was forced to flee her native village. The case prompted a bunch of legal reforms, including that the names of sexual assault survivors shouldn’t be made public.
Over the years, many people have objected to the muzzle on using survivors’ names, saying that it was actually doing more damage than good by stopping media and activists from rallying and organising effectively around the survivor for protests and sustained action.
Right now, it remains the law and good practice that the names of survivors are not published in the media without their permission.
Priyanka Dubey, a Delhi-based journalist who’s covered complex cases like the 2014 Badaun gangrape and murder, and is also the author of No Nation for Women, a forthcoming book on sexual assault in rural India, says that she’s trained herself not to use the identities of survivors in her reportage, even in cases where the identity is common knowledge. She remembers a 2015 case in Uttar Pradesh of a young woman who was raped, and her name and the name of her village soon became synonymous with the crime. Despite several media houses using her name, Dubey says she never used it in her reporting, because she knows the unfortunate impact it can have. “In an ideal situation, it shouldn’t matter if we publish the survivor’s name. Unfortunately, we still live in a time where there’s a lot of shame and stigma attached to [the survivors] of crimes like rape and molestation, and it becomes very difficult for the victims.” She says that it’s important for journalists to be respectful of the survivor’s wishes even if other media houses have reported her name, and to be cognisant of the misdirected stigma that may be associated with her if her identity is made public.
Journalist Shriya Mohan, who wrote several reports in 2015 on Suzette Jordan, the ‘Park Street rape victim’, acknowledges the many challenges women face when they decide to reveal their identity in public, as Jordan did. “The kind of life Suzette lived, on her own terms, a single mother who loved to party — she faced a lot of opposition in life. When this happened to her, she realised that no matter what she did, no matter how she lived her life, people were still going to talk about her and criticise her. Suzette is the kind of person who loved being the centre of attention: If someone is telling her story, she wanted to be the one to tell it. So she did. She had really lost so much, she had nothing to lose anymore.”
Mohan’s painfully lovely essay on Suzette Jordan, How Do You Survive Being Named the Park Street Rape Victim? is all about the details. We read about Jordan’s teenaged daughters, her old jobs, her favourite nightclubs, the way she enunciated the word rape, the yin-yang tattoo on her wrist… These are the kinds of images of a “victim” that you’re able to see: Someone relatable, someone likeable, someone a lot like you. Or perhaps she’s not like you, but she’s a person now, that you can connect to and disconnect from at your own will. It makes both the victim and the horror of the crime more unforgettable than they would ever otherwise be.
Being able to rally around a survivor also makes politicians, police, judges, trolls and others all less confident in saying just the most bizarre and fanciful things about women who survive violent crimes. They know she has a platform to respond to them and people to support her when she does. But perhaps most importantly, having the survivor’s name allows us to create our heroes the way we need to. At The Ladies Finger, we (and surely other writers elsewhere) were stumped, for example, on how to treat the survivor of the February 2017 case where a Malayalam actor was assaulted: We were in the awkward position of knowing her identity, and were able to see the ways in which she was radically reclaiming and using her identity, and yet, we were unable to make connections and rally round her unusual actions after the assault because we weren’t meant to publish her name.
Many women who have stood up for themselves publicly have become emblematic of a whole generation’s hopes, demands and fears, from Mathura and Jyoti Singh to Suzette Jordan and now, Varnika Kundu. When women refuse to be bullied into hiding for facing violence, they give us the opportunity to create a moment, make something important for all women, and really prepare ourselves for a leap forward.
Sharanya Gopinathan writes for The Ladies Finger (TLF), a leading online women’s magazine. Visit the website here.