In some measure, all of us are stalkers. Or, at the least, contain the seed of that within us. Humans, by definition, are social beings who exist in layers of embeddedness with the rest of their kind. A sneaking interest in the lives of others, a natural voyeurism, pervades our relations—a lot of social networking is, in fact, built around that premise. That we are all, in the end, peeping Toms. Why we do it—to keep up with the Joneses, to make sense of our lives, to fill the emptiness—is a parallel debate. The problem really starts, and we enter the grey country of stalking proper, when inquisitiveness becomes an obsession. Without, or often with, elements of a physically violent nature.
At an abstract level, it is always violent. For, the stalker interrupts and disrupts the life of a victim. In extreme cases, this could culminate in murder of uncommon brutality. The psycho-pathological genesis of this is clear—often enough, the stalker too commits suicide. Four shocking cases were reported from the capital itself last week. A 21-year-old woman was killed—stabbed 28 times in broad daylight—by her 34-year-old stalker in Burari, a semi-rural but fairly busy locality in north Delhi. Another, a student in Delhi University, was set on fire by her stalker when she refused to marry him. The case of S. Swathi, a young Infosys techie, being hacked to death by a stalker on a railway platform in Chennai had barely gone off the front pages then.
All this is, of course, just a tip of the iceberg. In Delhi, registered cases of stalking—under the freshly-minted Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code—saw a huge upward spike in one year. It more than doubled, from 541 (2014) to 1,124 (2015). These formed 18 per cent of all stalking cases in India; the victims were mostly in the age-band of 18-30 years. Despite the sensational Priyadarshini Mattoo murder of 1996 having flowed directly from obsessive stalking, the phenomenon was not even an IPC offence till 2013. Murder follows stalking all too often: this March, a student was shot dead in South Campus by her stalker just because she snubbed him a day before when he ventured to talk to her. And yet, stalkers could be unaware of the slippery slope of criminality they occupy. A typical Delhi case, 31-year-old Mohammad Khalid, reportedly told police he would call random numbers for “harmless flirting, just for fun”—he saved the number if a woman answered a call, and would incessantly send lewd messages and videos. “He stalked hundreds of women in this fashion, it was his favourite pastime,” says Vijay Singh, a senior official in Delhi Police.
If the inner life of a stalker comes in noirish shades, for the victim too the world is almost leached of its normal colours: every object in it now seems to contain menace. After living through this hell, there are very few victims who muster courage to talk about it. A Delhi-based journalist in her early 30s is one of them. The young man in question wouldn’t answer to the stereotype (or perhaps he would). Petite, skinny, freshly out of college, just 23, a self-confessed aficionado of her writings. He came in touch with her, and then managed to get the job of an intern in the same publication. Soon enough, it became clear that his liking was not confined to her writings, and was fast becoming an obsession. She dissuaded him, but to little effect. One late evening when she returned home with a friend, she sensed something was amiss. He had broken in through the kitchen window, and was standing there silently. After the shock subsided, they simply asked him to leave.
Meenakshi, a 19-year-old student, was stabbed to death in Anand Parbat, Delhi, in July 2015
Now he shifted tactics and started targeting her via e-mail, ramping up the tone to a directly hostile one: a string of malicious and threatening messages, “alleging all kinds of nonsense”, she remembers. She went to the US for a month and a half, and moved into a new apartment on return. She also reported the matter to police; he was detained thrice and is now out on bail on condition that he will behave. (The judge hearing the case, a woman, took pity at his young age.) But the onslaught resumed from behind the safety of some anonymous white screen. He hacked into her e-mail and social networking sites. She had to periodically change her passwords, upgrade privacy settings. He started sending her friends vicious messages, and spreading rumours about them. He even alleged she’s dating a Kashmiri terrorist. His Twitter handle was barred many times; doggedly, he kept floating new accounts under various names. He floated a ‘Kinky ******’ handle on Twitter and tagged all her friends to lewd messages.
The mother of the stalker is imploring with her to withdraw the case. Another, more perilous choice confronts the victim, though. Despite her life being thus interrupted, she was determined not to allow fear dictate her life—for that would be allowing the stalker power over her. (A theme, perhaps not coincidentally, touched upon in the film Pink that’s playing in the theatres at present.) She takes the necessary precautions, and sleeps with a butcher knife by her bedside. “I don’t feel like I’m out of it. He’s out there. I’m not stupid,” she says, with a straight face, “In this world, you can’t go invisible. I’m a journalist. But I’m not going to let fear dictate my life.”
The shield of anonymity gives stalkers a high, allows their fantasies free play—they feel in control of the victim’s life, trespass easily into their spaces, fish out bank account numbers, even follow the lives of their close family and friends, explains a therapist who introduced the reporter to some victims. The phenomenon is still vastly under-reported. In most cases where identities become revealed, the stalker’s parents appeal to that of the victim, promise an end to the victim’s troubles, even offer to leave the city. Things are more often than not resolved this way, says a joint commissioner of Delhi police, who acknowledges the police don’t discourage such a settlement.
Sometimes, a stalker could sneak into your life unbeknownst to you. As was the case with 27-year-old Sandhya (name changed). Confident and erudite, she had joined the Connaught Place branch of a private bank two years ago. Three months on, she started getting suggestive e-mails, from anonymous accounts. Also, unsolicited advice on what to wear, her choice of colours, the kind of life she should aspire to, how to have a fulfilling sex life... He described himself as “a carnal beast fascinated by her simplicity”, who could provide her an “enthralling life”. Initially, she dismissed it as possibly one of her college-mates playing a prank, but once obscene pictures started landing—her face grafted on the body of a naked porn star—she was really shaken up.
Sandhya decided to try and stake him out in return—without approaching the police. She was under pressure from family to quit her job and marry the son of a family friend in the US. Instead, she took the help of a cyber-junkie friend. The mail, it turned out, emanated from servers located in various parts of Europe. She even tried to engage with him, to get a fix on his identity. But he was too smart. Sandhya never got a hint of who he could be, while she eerily felt she was being shadowed, watched all the time. She changed her house, moved in with a friend in west Delhi; instead of the Metro, she took a shared cab to work; also changed her timings. On a friend’s word, she would wear a robe, cover her face on the commute.
But none of her ruses stanched the flow of messages. She concluded her stalker was in her office. One message said, “You will know me when the time comes, stop probing. I’m closer to you than you think.” She suspected a peon, then a middle-aged colleague, also two regular customers but was never sure. Finally, she got herself transferred to another branch. The frequency of mail tapered down from half-a-dozen a day to a couple in a month in the last six months. Meanwhile, she’s taking judo classes.
Rajat Mitra, criminal psychologist, has dealt with some 100 stalkers in his two-decade-long career. He’s worked in Tihar, hosting seminars for improving the mental health of inmates. Once when he was addressing a gathering of prisoners to dissuade them from ‘self-cutting’—inmates routinely inflict wounds on themselves—one of them interjected. A fellow prisoner, he said, can’t forget a girl and bleeds himself regularly. Mitra met the man alone—sure enough, he fitted the prototype. Held for a sex crime, and out on bail for a few months, he spent his days of freedom stalking his victim—actively contemplating murder. In another case, a stalker followed his victim right up to Mitra’s office, which she visited for counselling, and posed as a journalist to fish for information on her. A stalker hates a change of status quo in the life of a victim; in this case, Mitra was an agent of change.
Infosys worker Swathi was hacked to death by Ram Kumar (r) at Nungambakkam railway station, Chennai, in June 2016
“He’ll return,” fears Sandhya. He would often to write to her, “it’ll make your life happier if you understand I won’t live without you and won’t allow you to live without me.” “I’m seriously contemplating leaving India and marrying the boy of my family’s choice. This city has not left me with many options,” says Sandhya.
Women’s groups are critical of stalking being romanticised in the media, soap operas and films—saying there’s a discernible difference between cute and creepy, between love and insanity. A study done by Julia R. Lippman at the University of Michigan says “romcoms can encourage women to be more tolerant of stalker-like behaviour”. They listed movies that contribute to creating “stalking myths.” For example: women who watched There’s Something About Mary and Management were more likely to be accepting aggressive romantic pursuit than those who watched films featuring “a scary depiction of persistent pursuit” like Sleeping With the Enemy and Enough.
Indian pop culture occupies a similar, morally dubious cline. Mainstream films, for decades, valorise the idea of amorous pursuit as a hunt—literally, stalking the prey. The notion of consent, or “taking no for an answer”, can only be a non-starter in a romantic convention where a ‘no’ is meant to dissolve into a coy ‘yes’, often within the duration of a song. It’s only occasionally, with films like Darr, that the phenomenon gets full play—most other times, even within the neat division of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, aggressive male sexuality is normal. The idea that this is a pathology—where both the perpetrator and victim can come to serious harm, and psychiatric intervention can help—never enters the frame.
Stalking is a behavioural distortion, emanating from social attitudes—like the low premium attached to consent—and magnifying them. Once identified, sometimes counselling or ensuring isolation, with the intervention of police and family, can help. But stalkers are intuitively suspicious, cunning and operate from the safety of distance. Many are known to lead a dual life: a perfectly normal family life for social consumption and a secret life to act out their fantasies. Stalkers have normal cognitive faculties. They can retain their fantasy for life, even while learning to live with it. They don’t languish in mental asylums, they are mostly not psychotic. Very few go to jail. They are out there. Almost us.
Watching Your Back
Any unwanted and persistent pursuit of a woman by a man is a crime
Are you being stalked?
- Follow you wherever you go, be it school, office or home?
- Monitor your e-mail and social media accounts, and know whom you call on the phone?
- Call Often, including blank calls
- Send E-Mails, text messages etc?
- Threaten you or someone you care about?
- GET friends or family to track or harass you?
How stalking escalates
Which stage are you at?
- Surveillance: The stalker gathers information about the woman
- Accosting the target: The stalker makes contact with the woman
- Rebuff: The woman says no
- Anger: The stalker is enraged by the rejection and decides to make the woman suffer for having rejected him
- Revenge: The stalker tries to follow, threaten, and inflict physical or psychological abuse
What You Can Do
- Report unwanted and persistent contact to police. There is a punishment of three to five years for stalking. Courts consider repeated behaviour as evidence of guilt.
- Usually, the first step is to dial for police emergency assistance at 100 or report the matter to the local police station
- If the police does not respond to your complaints or doesn't take it seriously, be persistent
- Keep a copy of the stalker’s communications, if any
6,266 Cases of stalking registered in 2015
- 1,399 Maharashtra
- 1,124 Delhi
- 766 Telangana
- 551 Andhra Pradesh
Source: NCRB data