August 06, 2020
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Evil Is Near

The Priyadarshini Mattoo case has taken farcical turns. And stalking is a larger menance. How can these deranged hunters be stopped?

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Evil Is Near
'He told her he would follow her to hell and back...'
A friend of Priyadarshini Mattoo in The Indian Express

SANTOSH Kumar Singh thrust in his hand and wrenched out Priyadarshini's car keys at a red light, driving her into fear. A terror that tore through the next two years of her life as he hounded her. Obsessively dogging her to panic, tormenting her at the Delhi University law faculty where she was a student, breaking into her flat on occasion, accosting her in lonely places at times. Priyadarshini cried herself hoarse for help, lodging no less than five formal complaints with various police stations and the dean of her faculty. Even with the commissioner of police. But her stalker, a senior police officer's son, became horrifyingly overbearing and obtrusive. Till, on a cold winter day in 1996, Priyadarshini was found raped and killed in her apartment.

Four years later, last fortnight, Singh was acquitted on grounds of flimsy circumstantial evidence. To mock justice some more, the additional sessions judge, who made the ruling, observed in his judgment that he was acquitting Singh despite being 'convinced' of the latter's guilt. He held the cbi and the police responsible for fudging investigations to shield the guilty. Shocked newspaper headlines pronounced how the Hands of Justice had been bound once again. While, The Stalker remains free to hunt on...

...Most women have felt his predatory presence at some time or the other. Just ask and they'll tell you how they have imagined stealthy footsteps tracking them through lonely streets, cast nervous glances over their shoulders in dark alleys, suspecting untoward attention even in crowded rooms, experienced a tense tautening of spine when a car is following them for too long. Yes, most women, both in teeming megapolises and sparse small towns, have felt like helpless quarries of the male hunter at least once in their lives. And then there are those whose lives have been forced to change direction to throw the stalker off his track.

LIKE 32-year-old creative director Ameena Pathak, who had to move house to escape the man who had been hounding her incessantly for the past one year. Her horror story had its beginnings in the taxi stand attached to her south Delhi-based advertising agency to ply employees who work late nights. Regularly delayed in office, Ameena initially took little notice of the fact that the same driver was being assigned to her over some period. A slight youngster called Raju, whom she soon caught stealing glimpses of her through the rear-view mirror.

'It was when I asked for a change of driver that I got to know Raju himself had told the taxi stand owner I'd have only him drive me home,' recalls Ameena. Raju was sacked. But by then he had already found himself a new vocation in haunting her. He would stand hours outside her office, her home, even places where she was visiting clients and friends. So persistent was he that Ameena who lived alone in Sarita Vihar was reduced to asking colleagues to escort her home, rearranging her social schedule, dialling in her groceries and asking neighbours to check in on her in the mornings. Having shifted to her new home since, a frustrated Ameena fulminates: 'To think he still has me afraid of travelling alone in the nights. The independence that I so prided myself for has been badgered to pulp all thanks to a five-feet nothing man.'

And it gets even more eerie. Calcutta-based Shikha Dutta Gupta, middle-aged now, recalls the obsession of a man who stalked her for months when she was studying in Delhi. He thought he was the Kalki avatar and she his divine consort: 'He would even follow me to my local guardian's home. I don't know how he always knew my whereabouts. It was a tiring experience, always fearing the presence of a total stranger with whom I hadn't exchanged a single word.'

That's how most celebrities are pursued though; with a silent persistence that will not be ignored. Much to their discomfort, Channel V veejays Laila Rouass and Peeya have been shadowed by obsessive fans. Priyanka Gandhi too has been target of much uncomfortable, unsolicited attention. Among the sundry letters of proposal that she received, a few were from a jnu assistant professor a man who reportedly made an obsession of getting to meet and marry her.

But it's not the letter so much as the telephone that becomes the stalker's lifeline. Mumbai-based Namita Joshi got a taste of it when one such obsessive man cross-connected to her mobile. Having dialled her number accidentally he had picked up her voice mail re-directing callers to her residence telephone number. From then on, hell rang shrill in Namita's life. He harassed her with calls everywhere, bombarded her with obscenities and threats, left messages for her, tracked her around. Till, she registered a complaint with the West Colaba police station and painstaking investigations helped to track down her stalker a middle-aged married businessman.

For Sharmeen Abdullah, though, the fear comes from the known. The 41-year-old had lived with a former bureaucrat who now stalks her every move. The bitter fruits of a five-year-long intimate relationship she had with him. It was when she broke up the liaison four months ago, that he started threatening bodily harm to her and her nine-year-old son, calling up her friends and asking them to drive home the intensity of his intent, dashing off legal notices regularly. And making life 'living hell' for her just as he had promised.

SHE and her lawyer Sanjay Kalra have already registered a complaint at the Nizamuddin police station and dashed off letters to the powers that be. 'But,' says a paranoid Sharmeen, 'he knows just what to do to ruin my peace of mind. He knows that I like nothing better than relaxing and re-charging myself over the weekends. So, he slips in threatening notes through under my door on Fridays.' But it's the anticipation of what he'll do next, thanks to his contacts in the government, that has Sharmeen suffering from severe anxiety attacks and seeing psychiatrists. 'I practice reiki to heal my mind and also throw positive energies at him to bestow goodwill. But it isn't working,' she says heart-wrenchingly, 'I haven't slept for days.'

Unlike Sharmeen, who has courage to fight her case openly, many victims fear being stigmatised as being 'a loose woman who must have encouraged a man enough to stalk her.' So, instead of police and potential publicity, they engage sleuths to secretly hunt down their stalkers. Detective Taralika Lahiri of Delhi-based Spymasters recounts one such case: 'She was a young college girl who seemed to have known the boy casually. The problems started when he began coercing her to have sex with him. He had photographed her on some occasion and computer-managed the shots to strip her. He would follow her everywhere, paste these nudes pictures on her car, her father's car.' The detective agency tracked him down a middle-class youth living with his widowed mother and fabricated a pick-pocketing case against him. They had him picked up by the cops who, in turn, thrashed him to his senses. Says the sleuth: 'Unfair but then how else do you tackle these stalkers? The police can barely manage to trace them.'

And the litigation, with its sluggish pace, seems just as ineffective. As Supreme Court lawyer Meenakshi Arora, who works on cases of violence against women, says: 'The Indian Penal Code does not directly consider stalking a major offence. The burden of proof is almost always on the women. Convictions are difficult.' Unfortunately so in a world, where an American woman called Jayne Hitchcock slapped a case against a cyberstalker two years ago!

Brinda N. Adige, coordinator of Bangalore-based women's organisation Makkala Sahaya Vani, speaks of the many women students of a local college in the metro's north who are too intimidated by their seniors to report them to the authorities. Shadowed continuously, harassed, one such girl student even received a note that scribbled the warning, 'just come to bed or we will rape you, it could even happen in the classroom'. Says Adige: 'But the girls are too scared to complain against seniors who move around with lethal weapons.'

IN fact, very few women are confident of the police in reporting cases of stalking, concedes acp Crime Against Women Cell (CAWC) Seva Dass. Moreover, there's no special category or provision under which harassment through stalking is registered. More often than not such complaints are perceived as eve-teasing in the cut-and-dry cop jargon. A one-time harrowing experience rather than perpetual paranoia by which logic Priyadarshini Mattoo had not been 'stalked' for two years but 'eve-teased' five times. Still, Dass urges: 'Women have to come forth and report.' Perhaps, they would, if the long list of tips that a cell dedicated to protect women didn't include ones that read like patriarchal morality: 'Be properly clad at all times. Dressed in short skirts and tight-fitting clothes you attract attention.'

The truth is that many women victims end up blaming themselves for 'attracting' unnecessary attention without the police adding to self-deprecatory feelings. Also, it doesn't take a 'short skirt' to attract uncomfortable attention. Mumbai-based Meenakshi Ramnath did little other than saying an occasional hello to a colleague in her office before he began hounding her: 'I think he took my casual greetings as indication of my interest in him. He started calling me at odd hours, telling me not to wear sleeveless blouses.' His promotion was blocked after she lodged a complaint, and finally he did have to move out of town. But the memory still unnerves her: 'He used to just run after me on the roads. During all this my biggest fear was that he would get physical. I would have died that day.c

Many do at the hands of stalkers. Two years ago, a man who came to be known as the 'Vasant Kunj Stalker' attacked four women in this south Delhi colony. The last of his victims is thought to be the ndtv producer Shivani Jijodia, whom he killed with a rod-blow on her head just as he had struck the others. All his targets had been women living alone, he seemed to have monitored their movements enough to attack them just as they were entering their flats.

These hunts often have grisly climaxes. Like a 12-year-old girl in Bangalore had to suffer when her neighbour, an autorickshaw driver, took to following her for months. He raped and killed his prey.

Dr Achal Bhagat, psychiatrist with the Apollo Hospital, analyses: 'Most stalkers suffer from erotomania or the delusion of love. They know their target partially. For the rest they idolise. As they obsessively follow and gather information, they are seeking more evidences for such idolisation. But soon, they throw the subjects down from the pedestal. And then feel the need to punish them for being unworthy and teach them a lesson for not being who they were supposed to be.' The counsellor advises firmness while dealing with a stalker so that he can be stopped.

But will the prey summon enough courage to hunt down her hunter? For, there hangs another tale.

(Some names have been changed on request.)


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