“I saw a woman burning in the street,” Vijay Kukade told BBC Marathi. He was recalling a gruesome incident, in which a woman on her way to the college where she lectured was attacked and set alight by a man whom her family said had been stalking her for some time. Tragically, the woman lost her life in the attack which served as a visceral reminder of the nation’s stalking epidemic – one of the many manifestations of the sexual harassment and sex discrimination plaguing multiple facets of Indian society. As the murder of the college lecturer shows, this epidemic can – and does – have deadly consequences.
Stalking: Both widespread and underreported
Stalking is underserved in the national discourse, despite being an issue affecting copious numbers of women. An IndiaSpend report published recently analysed data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and found that, in 2018, India reported 9,438 cases of stalking – one every 55 minutes. The true scale of the epidemic may go all but unseen, as numerous cases are likely to remain unreported.
The number of incidents reported, IndiaSpend noted, had been increasing year-on-year as per the NCRB data. The number of reported stalking cases stood at 6,266 in 2015; rose to 7,190 in 2016; increased further to 8,145 in 2017; and then reached the one-case-every-55-minutes stat of 9,438 in 2018.
State-by-state, Maharashtra reported more stalking cases than any other state, with 2,088. Telangana reported 1,459, the second-highest number of stalking cases, followed by Madhya Pradesh, with 1,255. Maharashtra state capital Mumbai recorded the highest number of reported cases among India’s cities, with 513, followed by Delhi (410) and Kolkata (119).
The damage done
Stalking can take on many forms and have serious ramifications for individuals affected by the practice, even as it is too often dismissed in the public discourse as a relatively harmless act. A 2012 article in The Indian Journal of Psychiatry cites a definition of stalking as “the wilful, malicious, and repeated following or harassing of another person that threatens his or her safety…sometimes stalking may be of a brief duration or of a long duration of many years.” Individuals affected by stalking may be compelled to “change their jobs, move location, have secret telephone numbers, invest in house alarms, and carry weapons or firearms to protect themselves. Some develop post-traumatic stress disorders after a period of intense suffering.”
In addition to the harmful effects of the practice itself, stalking can be the forebearer of severe physical violence. In a 2017 Times of India report, citing a spate of stalking-related murders, advocate Mrunalini Deshmukh was quoted as saying “stalking is the initial stage. The ultimate intention of the stalker could be molestation or rape.”
Speaking to The Press Trust of India in 2018, senior psychiatrist Dr Nimesh G. Desai – director of the Institute for Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences – similarly warned that “the nature of crimes become heinous when the accused has higher degrees of fear of rejection, and is incapable of tolerating the frustration of not getting what he wants.” Stalking, he said, can lead to a failure for individuals to “recognise the boundary” and “[refuse] to take a ‘no’ as a ‘no’ – potentially leading to fatal acts of violence.
Is the anti-stalking law fit for purpose?
The Indian Parliament in 2013 notified stalking as a criminal offence with the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 that made key amendments to the Indian Penal Code. As per the Act, stalking is committed by any man who either “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 who “monitors the use of a woman of the internet, email, or any other form of electronic communication.” First-time offenders are liable to be fined and jailed for up to three years. Repeat violators can be jailed for up to five years, as well as being liable for a fine.
Yet even as the number of reported stalking cases go up, the available figures are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The IndiaSpend report cites a 2015 study by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which asserted that just one in every nine cases of stalking were reported to the police in Mumbai. In Delhi, the figure was one in every thirteen.
Women’s reticence about being affected by stalking can be attributed to a number of factors. “There are certain perceptions about stalking cases–they are not taken seriously by the society or by the police,” IndiaSpend quoted Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research. “Hence, it is not easy for women to go and report these cases. There is a lot of hesitancy involved.” A piece published by legal technology platform MyAdvo concurs, noting “there is fear instilled in the victim’s mind about registering a complaint with the law enforcement authorities due to lack of sensitisation and empathy shown towards the victim.”
Does Bollywood play a role?
One reason highlighted by multiple commentators is the perceived cultural normalisation of stalking as a romantic trope, as opposed to a distressing act of harassment. Bollywood in particular has been targeted over this, with allegations that films put out by the world’s largest cinematic industry often fail to condemn stalking and in fact glorify it as a romantic act.
“Eve-teasing refers to a common refrain in Bollywood films in which a man refuses to accept a woman’s rejection of his advances until she finally gives into his desires,” argues an article published in the Harvard Political Review. “This practice becomes incredibly dangerous when Indian men attempt to emulate the romantic successes of the male protagonists they identify with on screen.”
A piece published in The Guardian concurs, writing “over the past twenty years, the deranged and thwarted Bollywood stalker has evolved from nominal villain to an outright hero…Such behaviour does inevitably affect an audience’s assumptions about how to conduct themselves in similar situations.” Rachel Dwyer, a professor of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS University of London, is quoted in the article as arguing “while Hindi cinema is not realistic, some may see this behaviour, which is admired by viewers, as acceptable, and follow it in real life where practices such as ‘Eve-teasing’ are widespread.”
Perhaps there was no better manifestation of the perceived impact of cultural normalisation of stalking in mediums such as Bollywood than the case of an Indian man who, in 2015, did not receive a conviction on charges of stalking in Australia. He had stalked two women, one for a period of eighteen months and the other for a period of four months. In his defence, it was successfully argued that Indian cinema had contributed to his view that the dogged pursuit of a woman would end in romance – his defence counsel arguing that it was “quite normal behaviour” and the judge concurring that his cultural background contributed to the man’s failure to appreciate the gravity of his conduct and fail to understand the criminal nature of his actions.
India’s sexual harassment crisis
Sexual harassment is a crisis in India, with women susceptible to forms of harassment such as stalking throughout society – in their home, in the workplace, in public. As previously reported by Health Issues India, even in the era of MeToo, “the practice [of sexual harassment] remains a depressingly common phenomenon in India, where a woman is sexually harassed every twelve minutes.” Even as cases of crimes such as stalking are being reported in increasing numbers, there is still a culture and an environment which allows for cases to go unreported, those affected to continue to be victimised, and violators to go free and continue their conduct.
Even when cases are reported, conviction rates are low. In 2015, according to The Hindustan Times, 26 percent of stalking cases ended in convictions. This was actually lower than the preceding year, which saw a conviction rate of 35 percent.
The need of the hour is for India to take note of its pervasive issue of sex discrimination and the forms of harassment in which it manifests, including stalking. The stories of women – and of men, whose lack of protection under the stalking law is a major loophole in the legislation rightly criticised by activists – must be taken seriously by the authorities. Unless the environment is in place, in which those affected by stalking feel comfortable to come forward knowing that their experiences and trauma will not be disregarded, cases will continue to go unreported – and the lives of numerous people across India will needlessly continue to be ruined.