Let's talk stalking
Shreya Das explains how sometimes a petty act of staking can lead to a bigger crime and why it is important to make stalking a gender-neutral and non-bailable offence…
Whether it's the song from Darr where Shahrukh is singing for Juhi saying:
'Jadu teri nazar, khushbu tera badan
tu haan kar ya na kar
tu hai meri kiran…'
or Dharmendra openly confessing his love to Hema Malini in Jugnu with lyrics like:
'Pyar ke is khel mein, do dilon ke mel mein
Tera peecha na main chhodunga soniye
Bhej de chaahe jail mein
Pyar ke is khel mein…'
Stalking a girl in the name of love has been an evergreen trend promoted by Bollywood. It has become so normal that it's often ignored, or simply made fun of. But is it really an innocent act of attraction? Laxmi's stalker got her on the street and scarred her for life with acid. Whereas, Varnika Kundu, who was chased by a group of men in a car, is still facing questions put up by our society for driving home late at night. Even the year 2018 kick-started with an incident of a 14-year-old girl setting herself on fire, unable to handle the harassment she was subjected to by four men who had been stalking her for months.
In 2005, a man whose advances Laxmi Agarwal had spurned for two and a half years, attacked her while she was on her way to her summer job, and threw acid on her face. Laxmi recalls feeling like someone had burnt her alive when she was only 15-years-old. When the PCR van arrived to take her to the hospital, Laxmi recalls looking down at her hands and watching her skin melt away. "I could see my skin peeling away the same way plastic does when it is put on fire," she recalls.
Soon after the attack, Laxmi's attacker got happily married to some girl. On the other hand, Varnika Kundu's attacker is now out of police custody and pleading not-guilty. Such cases highlight the much-needed change in our existing laws that protect the modesty of a woman.
At a recently concluded event at Connaught Place's Oxford Bookstore, MP Shashi Tharoor, senior advocate Kamini Jaiswal, advocate Karuna Nundy and Geeta Nambisan, along with the 'survivors' of stalking - Laxmi and Varnika, came together to talk about the various aspects related to stalking. Some important points like why stalking should be taken seriously; the repercussions of this seemingly innocent act; and why it is important to make it a non-bailable, gender-neutral offence, were discussed in a simple manner.
Under the campaign #Talkingstalking, MP Tharoor and senior advocate Jaiswal are planning to propose an amendment to Indian criminal law that will make stalking a non-bailable offence. The idea behind this proposal is that amending the law in this way will help protect victims and ensure the police treat complaints of stalking with the seriousness they deserve. For the same cause, Dr Tharoor has already submitted a Private Member's Bill to the Lok Sabha for consideration in the Winter Session.
It does not matter who is talking about this matter. What is important is to take this issue seriously; to make people understand the probable consequences and the effect one incident can have on someone's life.
Here are some things that one needs to understand:
According to section 354(D) of Indian Penal Code, stalking is defined as
(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
(2) Monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication, commits the offence of stalking.
And whoever commits the offense 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.
Why should stalking be made a non-bailable offence?
Because a stalker knows that our existing law will not lead to anything serious. Most important are IPC sections 503 and 506 and the recent provision of 2013 on stalking. 503 was made bailable, which means if someone threatens one to rape or murder, it is a bailable offence. If someone is stalking and pestering you, even the police or the magistrate do not have any provision under which they can send the perpetrator to jail or stop that person from repeating the said offence. What it does is that it enables criminals to rape, murder, acid attack, and assault.
Now, non-bailable does not mean that you won't get a bail, it just means that the case would go before a judge who will see the evidence and decide whether the person should be given a bail or not. The judge reviews if that person is fit for society; if they are prone to commit a much heinous crime like murder or rape and after looking at the evidence, the judge decides how to deal with the accused.
Stalking is not just 'peecha karna'
"What became quite clear to me in the 2013 parliament discussion is that we are really quite a country of stalkers. We have stalkers in our movies, and our parliament – they admitted it. And this idea that it's charming is something that comes from a deep-rooted idea that a woman must keep saying no and a man must keep pursuing. The point though is that once a woman does say no, it is a straight and clear 'NO.' Women are brought up to be polite, not to get offended, to be aware of the backlash, not to go to the authorities, to do a settlement, to go to some NGO, and not go to the police. Saying 'no' is not an easy thing for a woman," explained advocate Nundy about the idea of stalking in India.
"Getting stalked even once in your life is good enough for putting that fear in your mind. And it's not just the violence, it's the fear of the violence as well which impacts your every single journey," said Geeta Nambisan.
People's Casual approach
Geeta Nambisan works with an NGO and she has seen several cases where girls come asking for help instead of going to the police. The reason? "We have observed that when we go to the police with cases of persistent stalking, they behave very indifferently to it, and advice the girls to settle the thing with the guy. They just say, 'peecha hi toh kiya hai aur kuch toh nahi kiya na' (He has only followed you, not anything more..). I believe this non-serious behaviour of the police is very dangerous. There have been so many Nirbhaya's after 2016 and even after that, we aren't taking things seriously. Instead, when women go to the police with their lives endangered, they are told to go home and wait for a committee to set up," exclaimed Geeta.
"I feel that if we start taking this kind of crimes very seriously, we will have lesser crime rates. We bring up our daughters saying how do we protect them from violence but we need to bring up our boys by saying how do you deal with rejection," she added.
Senior advocate, Kamini Jaiswal says she is glad that people are bringing up this issue in the parliament. She hopes that parliamentarians will not let it lie in the dustbin like all other bills which are introduced and that the matter is taken seriously before another Nirbhaya happens. "The first thing we have to do is to make our investigating agencies very sensitive to the issue of stalking, what a woman's honour means and how seriously they should take these cases. This bill should be dealt with expeditiously in the parliament and given priority," she said.
This is all that our authorities need to do to make a difference. But what happens when a girl is stalked, how should she handle the situation then? The answer for this was perfectly summarized by Varnika. "Just one kick and they will feel the fear that we feel. So, any sort of self-defence is the key to making a huge difference in not letting them see us as a weaker sex anymore," she said.
Taking her answer forward, Karuna added, "Learning self-defence means that you are not acting like a victim anymore, it means that you have something at your disposal to defend yourself. This is important for the Ministry of Human Resources Development to emphasize on teaching men how to deal with anger; how not to stalk, attack and most importantly, not only to respect women's safety but also women's freedom. Now, if you go home and your parents ask you, 'Usne tumhara peecha kyu kiya?' the answer should be that I am a citizen of this country, I have a right not to be stalked, and I have a right to go out in the middle of the night if I feel like it. The fact that I am stalked is not my fault. I think that idea of protecting the freedom of the people we love and supporting the freedom of the people that we care about is extremely important as opposed to just the idea of protection."