In Focus

Stalking, not so innocuous

By Manu Shrivastava

It’s only recently that stalking is being discussed in the purview of crimes against women. For years, members of the public, even authorities, weren’t aware of the term and the gravity of the act. Amendments in the law and awareness through media and films have put the spotlight on stalking as a serious offence and is now being talked in legal and social debates.

For the common man, stalking is a harmless and innocuous act. However, it’s only the victim who can give a perfect account of how stalking can affect one’s life. Take for instance the recent case of a school principal in south Mumbai who has accused another woman of stalking her since five years and making her life hell. There have been several instances where women being stalked had to change jobs, relocate to a new place or even change identity to keep a ‘crazy’ stalker at bay.

There are myriad Bollywood films that show how following a girl, despite her displeasure, gets the girl to like you. The Indian film industry has glorified stalking. Now, many people talk about Kabir Singh and how it approves of the culture of aggressive men, subdued women and ‘toxic masculinity’.

Not to forget many films in the past have glorified such acts of obsession, aggression and violence that now comes under the purview of ‘stalking’. To name a few, Darr, Tere Naam, Raanjhaana, Anjaam, etc. In most of these movies, there is a twisted depiction of love and romance, often even against the wishes of the woman. Film certifying bodies and film-makers should play a more responsible role and not glamourise such acts.

Stalking may lead to dangerous crimes

In January 2020, Pune police arrested five men for stalking and harassing a 40-year-old woman online. Further probe revealed that the men had created several other fake accounts. They would stalk women online, edit videos posted by them in an obscene manner and would re-share those videos.

It will be an extremely scary situation if someone stalks you…isn’t it? While you can identify if someone stalks you physically, you may not even realise when you are being stalked online. With the reach of internet on our computers, laptops and now even phones, more and more users are active in the virtual space. The sea of social networking sites and apps that are available on the touch of a key on phones has also opened doors for several cyber-crimes, including cyber-stalking.

What is stalking? Does it have a legal connotation to it? How common it is? These are some of the many questions that one may think of when one thinks of stalking. The term gained spotlight and some of us must have paid attention to it during the media coverage of the Varnika Kundu case where the Chandigarh-based DJ was allegedly stalked. While the case promised sufficient attention and is on way to reach its logical conclusion, the term ‘stalking’ did garner enough attention for the common man.

‘Stalking’ was introduced in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) through Section 354D in April 2013 based on the recommendations of Justice Verma Committee. The Committee was constituted after the horrific Nirbhaya gang rape case in Delhi in 2012. The section introduced ‘Stalking’ as a specific offence and this is a big leap in identifying the gravity of the offence.

However, it will take many more serious crimes and perhaps more high-profile cases for people and women, in particular, to understand the gravity of stalking and how something seemingly innocuous can lead to more dangerous crimes such as molestation, rape and murder.

There have been several cases in the past when the victim’s failure to report stalking or the police’s refusal to register and take cognisance of an offence led to the murder or rape of the victim. The most notable case was of Priyadarshini Mattoo, a law student, who was raped and brutally murdered by her stalker.

What does the law on stalking say?

According to Section 354 D of the Indian Penal Code:
1) Any man who – follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman; or monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication, commits the offence of stalking;
(2) Whoever commits the offence of stalking shall be punished on first conviction with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine; and be punished on a second or subsequent conviction, with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine.

It must be noted that most women choose to ignore the person (stalker) or the act of stalking, sometimes not realising the seriousness of the offence and more often out of shame. The constant evasion of the situation only emboldens the stalker. It is often inaction on the part of the victim that stalkers get the courage to continue their acts and sometimes even escalate by attempting to rape and/or murder the woman. In case of physical stalking, a woman may change her commuting route or the travel schedule or time.

In case of online stalking, a victim may choose to simply block the stalker’s profile or in more serious cases delete her own account. However, such acts almost never discourage stalkers and first-person accounts reveal that running away from a stalker is not a solution and they keep devising new ways and new profiles to stalk.

Hyderabad-based interior designer Ashika Reddy shares her experience of a man who started following her when she would go to a particular site for work. Choosing to ignore him, she got the shock of her life when one day the man followed her back to her home and tried to enter her apartment forcibly. “Had I contacted the police earlier I could have averted this incident”, she said later. She says most girls, like her, try to wish away or dismiss the stalker as someone who will walk away if ignored. In reality, it works the other way round and stalkers are emboldened when not acted against.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 defined stalking and made the law gender-specific with a more stringent punishment. However, like most other laws, similar challenges affect its implementation — lack of awareness, mindset of people, societal perception and complacent authorities. Online stalking often leads to stalking in person and the prior gives vital information to the stalker about the movements, travel schedule, regularly-visited places, etc., of the woman.

Stalking by family members

While most women are stalked by men who proposed marriage or relationship but were refused, there are several women who are stalked by their own families. When a woman resorts to live away from an ‘abusive’ family and chooses to become ‘independent’, often her family including her father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, etc., harass and stalk her to make life difficult.

Police, counsellors, women groups often dismiss such cases as ‘family matter’ making it difficult for the woman to seek any legal or judicial remedy and the seriousness of the offence only increases. Stalking by family members owing to their patriarchal mindsets is as serious an offence as stalking by an unknown person. Such families follow and monitor a woman’s activities, against her wishes, through physical stalking and through social media. Such women are abused by family and judged by the society as they see it through the coloured prism of ‘family dignity’.

The Indian Constitution guarantees ‘The Right To Live With Dignity’ under the fundamental ‘Right to Life’ to every citizen. Any act a man commits that is violative of a woman’s right to life or right to live with dignity is an offence and punishable by law. Awareness about stalking and that even a family member can stalk is necessary to ensure women living away from her families are guaranteed the same rights under the Indian Constitution.

In cases of stalking, every activity of a stalker must be accounted for; a formal written complaint must be made in a police station and legal process initiated as that’s the only way to protect the woman. If not, sometimes women themselves take law in their hands like the girl in Uttar Pradesh who threw acid on her stalker who was harassing her for not reciprocating his overtures.