Three days before the Delhi High Court awarded the death sentence to Santosh Singh, Priyadarshini Mattoo’s stalker turned killer, another stalker left a young girl in Gurgaon scarred for life. The girl, a class X student, was on her way to school when her besotted neighbour threw acid on her, inflicting serious burns on her right hand. Like Mattoo, the girl had dared to spurn the advances of her stalker. “She is now terrified of venturing out,” says her father, who has gone into shock since the incident.
The girl’s assailant has been booked, but not for stalking. Stalking, by itself, is not punishable as such under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He has been booked under Sections 307 (attempt to murder) and 354 (assault with the intention of outraging the girl’s modesty).
The situation is not much different in other centres and women are at the receiving end in most cases. Dr Poornima Advani, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, says, “Stalking is a part of most crimes against women in both urban and rural areas.” Swanchetan, a Delhi-based NGO that counsels trauma victims, estimates that one in 20 women in India have been seriously stalked. Even when a digital medium is used — emails, text messages and chats — women comprise more than 80 per cent of the victims, estimates a senior officer of the Kolkata Police.
With the IPC hardly a deterrent, the stalker remains on the prowl. Encouraging him is the perverse persistence allowed in matters of the heart by a patriarchal society. Popular culture does not help matters by drawing a thin line between wooing and stalking.
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The stalker typically begins with a well-laid plan for reaching out to the girl. “The stalker can’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He might call the girl 40 times before she answers,” says Dr Rajat Mitra, director of Swanchetan. “The offender doesn’t see anything wrong with his behaviour. He thinks he is loving her.”
Is it love? Clinical psychologist Dr Aruna Broota does not think so — at the most, she would call it “hormonal love, not romance”.
The unrequited ‘wooing’ eventually gives way to intimidation. If the girl stays aloof, the stalker may turn violent. The result may be the same if a victim’s kin confronts the stalker.
Prasenjit, a 36-year-old engineering consultant in Howrah, was severely beaten when he protested the harassment of his wife, Sharmistha, through lewd messages. Sharmistha had to seek the chief minister’s intervention before the police booked the offenders.
Says Dr Mitra, “Once the stalker’s fantasy breaks, he believes in punishing the victim.” The violence is mostly aimed at the face, so that others are not attracted. Bangalore-based Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women has recorded 53 acid attacks in Karnataka since 1999. There were verdicts in only nine of the cases.
The victims who manage to avoid such attacks are still left with deep psychological scars. “They wake up wondering, ‘Is this the day he will get me?’ Their stress levels are high. They suffer from depression and anxiety attacks,” says Dr Mitra. It affects and alters the everyday functioning of some 80 per cent of the victims.
UNCHECKED BY THE SYSTEM
Cases of stalking can be booked under Section 509 of the IPC, which deals with ‘outraging the modesty of a woman’. If stalking results in molestation, rape, or attempt to murder, other IPC Sections are brought to bear. But the law leaves ample loopholes.
Kirti Singh, legal convener for the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), says, “Stalking may amount to much more than words, gestures and exhibits intended to outrage the modesty of a woman as defined in Section 509.” The definition of modesty itself has been left open to the court’s interpretation.
But Tajendra Luthra, Additional Commissioner of Police in charge of the crime against women cell, says there is enough room under the existing laws to book stalkers. The law, he says, cannot be too specific. He cites an example: “Talking on the phone while driving is an offence, even though it hasn’t been defined as such.”
Defects are there in the social system too. Fearing stigma, most victims continue to suffer silently. The few who speak out are often given ill-considered advice. An NGO counsellor says, “A woman who was petrified of a stalker went to the local police. They told her she should be flattered by the attention!”
Renuka Chowdhury, minister of state for women and child development, says, “I bet the police are not even aware of the issue of stalking.” Luthra says the police are equipped to counsel the victims, but are severely overburdened.
PLUGGING THE HOLE
The first law criminalising stalking was introduced in California in 1990. Before the millennium was over, every state in the US had similar provisions, though with different definitions and punishments. Canada, Australia and the UK have also followed suit.
Union minister Chowdhury says she is keen to include stalking as one of the issues in the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, or address it separately.
Meanwhile, AIDWA is ready with a Criminal Law Amendment Bill, Section 509(b) of which deals exclusively with stalking. It identifies such behaviour as a non-bailable offence and prescribes punishment of up to seven years. It also allows the stalker to be punished if he has frightened the victim; at present, criminal proceedings are initiated only after harm has been done.
It is likely to be a long way. Says Dr Advani, “Since the enactment of the IPC in 1860, there have been only three amendments on crimes against women.” She believes the existing legislations could serve well if the police were independent and the judiciary prompt. Till such a time, the stalker will go on undeterred.
Inputs from BR Srikanth in Bangalore, Drimi Chaudhuri in Kolkata