By Divya Vijayakumar
A month ago, a friend wandered into a grocery store where she saw a vaguely familiar man staring at her. She approached him and asked if they knew each other. He said yes, he knew her name, and even rattled off a list of places where he’d seen her before – at track practice, a park close to her home, a bookstore. With growing discomfort, she turned to leave when he called out to her. “It was your birthday two days ago, wasn’t it? Happy birthday.” This last bit of information was not even on social media.
While she was shaken by the interaction, many people didn’t consider it something to worry about. After all, they countered, he wasn’t harming her. In fact, he’d even been nice and wished her. While she chose not to go to the police, she felt unsettled for a long time after.
On 17th December, Jyothi Kumari, an advocate in her 20s, was on her way to work in Bangalore when she was murdered by Madhu who had been stalking and harassing her for years. He had constantly harassed her when she was younger, following her to college and incessantly telephoning her house. He disappeared for a while when her uncle intervened but two months ago, Jyothi had approached the police saying that Madhu had resurfaced, attacked her when she was in her PG and also stolen her scooter. All that her complaint yielded was a “stern warning”, and no FIR was filed.
Jyothi is the latest in a growing number of women who have been not just harassed but murdered by their stalkers – angry, entitled men seeking revenge after their advances were rejected. Many of these crimes also share a pattern of having been committed in public places, often as these women were travelling to or from their place of work. Pinki Devi, a beautician in Gurgaon was stabbed to death by her stalker at a metro station in Delhi in October. S Swathi, an Infosys employee, was hacked to death by her stalker at Chennai’s Nungambakkam railway station in June.
With every horrific case, what becomes clear is this — stalking cannot be brushed aside as something casual. Yet there are movies and pop culture that glorify stalking, depicting it as proof that a man’s persistence pays off. Just a few months ago Tamil actor Sivakarthikeyan defended stalking, saying that it does not matter if in a movie the hero’s feelings are not reciprocated initially, if his thoughts are “pure” and he is willing to marry the girl.
The Indian Penal Code, thankfully, was amended in 2013 to include stalking as a crime. Section 354 of the IPC deals with attempts to outrage a woman’s modesty: the amendment introduced Clause 354D to specifically address instances of stalking and defines a stalker as any man who follows, contacts, or attempts to contact a woman to foster a personal interaction with her, despite her clear indication of disinterest.
Despite this, our police still often do not file an FIR under Clause 354D, but prefer Clause 354A that deals with molestation. But, 354A only covers incidents where a man initiates unwanted physical contact that is explicitly sexual, demands sexual favours, forcefully shows pornography against the will of a woman or makes sexually coloured remarks — things that may or may not happen in a case of stalking.
If my friend had indeed tried to complain to the police about the stalker in the grocery store, how effective would it have been? Journalist Arunima Mazumdar wrote of experiencing something similar when she called the police after being harassed by an old classmate, both online and offline, from 2013 to 2015. Mazumdar was made to wait for hours at the police station before an officer nonchalantly commented that Pradhan hadn’t really “done” anything to her. An FIR was not filed and the stalker was let off after writing an ‘apology’ letter.
By law, stalkers can receive bail if being convicted for the crime for the first time – and this sometimes gives the offender an awful opportunity for revenge (bail can be denied only in the case of subsequent convictions for stalking). For instance, Lakshmi, a 32-year-old housewife, was stabbed to death in Delhi, in September by Sanjay Kumar. He had already been arrested for harassing her, but had secured bail. In 2015, Meenakshi, a teenager in Delhi, was also murdered by Jai Prakash despite her family having lodged a complaint against him for stalking – two years before she was murdered.
So is there a law that can ensure that stalkers don’t approach women after police complaints have already been made? While India does not have provisions for restraining orders in the way that the USA does, prohibitive injunctions have been cited as a method of ordering a person to not interfere with another’s liberty.
Lawyer Aarti Mundkur clarifies that although injunctions are filed in civil courts, this can only be done if there is already a criminal case pending against the accused for the same. Such injunctions are rarely granted anyway. Rebecca John, senior advocate in the Delhi High Court, also says that these civil proceedings are long drawn out and arduous. According to her, the most important concern is of enforceability — currently there is nothing that ensures that stalkers follow injunction orders — and so these injunctions often turn out to be only scraps of paper.
A video entitled The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon went viral a few years ago – it’s a horror-comedy short film where a ghoulish stranger follows a man around, trying to kill him. It’s funny because his weapon of choice is a spoon. All that the stranger does is to shadow him constantly, tapping away with a spoon. The victim slowly loses his sanity. His complaints to the police are not taken seriously because they sound ludicrous. That’s what stalking can feel like. Somebody whittling away at another’s security with something seemingly innocuous. Somebody whose fixation transcends the fact that the other person is also human, with her own feelings and the right to not be interested.
Co-published with Firstpost.