On Tuesday, our Parliament debated tough, new laws for crimes against women. In the midst of the hurly burly of Parliamentary debate, came this gem.
“Who amongst us have not followed girls?” said Janata Dal(United) chief Sharad Yadav in the Lok Sabha amid peals of laughter. Mr Yadav was referring to the provisions of stalking and voyeurism in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, that, he said, was prone to being misused against men.
“Kaun hai hum me se jisne peechha nahi kiya hai. Aur jab mahila se baat karni hoti hai tab pehal mahila nahi karti hai, pehal toh hamein hi karna hoti hai. Koshish toh hamein hi karni padti hai. Pyaar se batana padta hai, yeh poore desh ka kissa hai. Humne khud anubhav kiya hai, hum sab log uss daur se gujare hain, usko aise mat bhulo. Debate karao, long lasting changes pe nazar rakho. [We have all stalked (women). And you have to take the first step when you want to speak to a woman. A woman will never approach you; we (men) have to try on our own and have to talk to her softly. This is the story of the entire country. We have experienced it ourselves. We all have gone through that age, don't forget. We must debate (on anti-rape laws) and keep our eyes set on long lasting changes],” the JD(U) chief said.
Thankfully, despite the spirited defence put up by Sharad Yadav in its favour, Lok Sabha passed the anti rape bill, making stalking and voyeurism non-bailable offences if repeated for a second time. When an elected leader does not get the fine difference between wooing and stalking, it is time to get very, very worried. When we are told on the floor of Parliament that wooing and stalking are synonymous, we cease to wonder why India holds this abysmal track record of gender violence.
Every girl would know the horror of being stalked. Contrary to what our esteemed politicians believe, there is nothing romantic about it. Wooing as a concept is completely different from stalking and it is the inability to recognise this intrinsic difference that underlines the regressiveness of the mindset of those we have elected as our representatives. Geetika Sharma and Priyadarshini Mattoo were not wooed, they were stalked. Geetika was driven to suicide. Priyadarshini was raped and brutally murdered.
Where does the line blur between wooing and stalking? Is our popular culture to blame? In most Indian cinema, the male protagonist’s unhealthy interest in the female protagonist, shadowing her everywhere, irritating her, finally ends up in her collapsing dramatically in his arms and declaring her love for him. In teen fiction, the Twilight series, which went to break all records and achieve cult status, worryingly, has the male protagonist, Edward Cullen stalker like in his obsession with Bella Swan, the female protagonist. While this seems cute and adorable, and oh-so-romantic on celluloid and in the books we read, in the real world, stalking is anything but. In fact, it is downright scary. I remember stopping going to university because of a persistent stalker. Friends tell me of stalkers giving infinite missed calls on their home landlines (these are all friends who have been adolescents in the pre cell phone era) and not one of them found it cute or romantic. It just completely freaked them out that an unknown person they had absolutely no interest in was shadowing their every move. Not one of them said that they welcomed the attention, in fact most of them were terrified. I must add here, that stalking is not gender specific, there have been famous cases where women have stalked men too.
Classic stalking behavior is this. “The stalking behaviour is in the nature of harassment. Typically, stalking behaviour includes the following the victim and entering the victim’s home. They persecute their victims by unwanted advances, frequent telephone calls, letters, email, mobile messages, graffiti, notes, and gifts. Severely aggressive behavior can lead to assault, kidnapping, and even murder sometimes of the love object but at other times of an acquaintance seen as a rival.”
When Salman Khan in Tere Naam follows the girl he has set his heart on, played by Bhoomika Chawla, and even goes to the extreme of kidnapping her, he set a dangerous precedent that legitimised the extreme side of stalking, that of wanting to take complete control of the object of interest. Earlier hit films like Sholay (where Dharmendra pesters an irate Hema Malini in Koi Haseena Jab Ruth Jaati Hai), find their echoes in more recent films like Rockstar where a nerdy, earnest Ranbir Kapoor makes a public nuisance of himself in following Nargis Fakhri around the place. In all three examples, the girl falls in love with the boy eventually.
Stalkers are normally fixated on the object of their affection. In Hindi cinema, Shahrukh Khan played perhaps, the most realistic portrayal of the dark side of stalking in the movie, Darr, unlike the fluffy romantic portrayal most movies choose to show. To quote Farhan Akhtar, actor-director, “There are films in which romantic wooing has been replaced by a kind of harassment of the heroine. The heroes of these films could be considered stalkers in some civil societies. Now imagine that this actor is a role model to millions… wouldn’t his fans think this behaviour is okay? Now imagine that this actress is a role model to millions… what message does it send to women across the country?”
We have generations of Indian men who have grown up, conditioned on the belief that to woo a girl, one must stalk her, be persistent, force one’s attentions on her and even if she resists, expresses irritation, disgust and revulsion, they must continue because, inevitably, like the heroines in our popular cinema, they will succumb. When these men realise that unlike Hindi cinema, in the real world, girls they pursue with such rabid single mindedness might be totally disinterested in them, they can’t take the rejection. They have been brought up to believe that THIS is the way to woo a woman, and to add to this is the way our boys are brought up, never denied anything they want. This then leads on to rape, murder, acid attacks, all to assuage the thwarted sense of self esteem the rejected stalker feels.
This is what happened with Priyadarshini Mattoo, who was found raped and murdered in her own house on January 23, 1996. From Wikipedia, “Priyadarshini was in the third-year of her law program, when she was found strangled in her uncle’s residence. She had been raped, struck 14 times with a motorcycle helmet, and finally strangled with a wire. Santosh Kumar Singh, her senior in college, had been stalking and harassing her for several years, and was the immediate suspect. But Santosh came from an influential family – his father J.P. Singh was then Inspector General of Police in the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry – in the course of the trial he served as Joint Commissioner of Police in Delhi, where the crime had been committed. In view of these connections, the court handed over investigation of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In 1995, Priyadarshini had complained that Santosh Singh was harassing and stalking her. She had been provided with a personal security officer at the time. In retaliation, Santosh had lodged a complaint with the university alleging that she was pursuing two degrees simultaneously. However, it turned out that Priyadarshini had passed M.Com in 1991 and the complaint was merely malicious. On the morning of January 23, 1996, Santosh was seen knocking for entrance into Priyadarshini’s uncle’s house, where she was living, in the Vasant Kunj area of Delhi. A servant saw Santosh entering her house, apparently saying that he wanted a compromise in their legal complaints. Subsequently he raped her, strangled her with an electric wire and then battered her face beyond recognition with a motorcycle helmet.”
Priyadarshini Mattoo’s case got widespread media coverage, with the public pressure compelling the case to be reopened, after the trial court acquitted him. In the interim, Santosh Singh had gone on to get married and become a practicing lawyer. The High Court eventually awarded him the death penalty which was then reduced by the Supreme Court to life imprisonment. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “Santosh Singh, post conviction, barely spent 4 months behind bars and was out on parole in March 2011. Upon return, he subsequently filed another application for grant of parole, subject matter of Criminal Writ Petition 224/2012 before Delhi High Court. The High Court granted him a parole of another one-month on March 6, 2012.”
In Geetika Sharma’s case, the former airhostess with MDLR airlines owned by former Haryana state Minister of Home Gopal Kanda, committed suicide alleging harassment.
In yet another case, Vinodini, a techie in South India, died after an acid attack by her stalker.
Thankfully now, for girls who face the nightmare of unwelcome attentions, “Stalking — physical or electronic via phone calls, text messages or emails — is now a criminal offence, punishable with one to three years in jail. Stalking no longer means just causing distress to someone by following the person or forcibly interacting with them. It now also includes unwanted telephone calls, sending derogatory SMS or emails that “disturb the peace of mind of any individual”. Those guilty of these offences will also have to pay hefty fines. “Whoever monitors the use by a person of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication that results in a fear of violence, or interferes with the mental peace of such person, commits the offence of stalking,” says the Indian Penal Code.
Many Geetikas, Priyadarshinis and Vinodinis suffer across India. Some are burnt to death, some have acid flung on them, some are stabbed, some are abducted, raped and murdered. Girls drop out of college in order to avoid stalkers, they change timings, they avoid going out in public alone, they live on the edge of a sword. For no fault of theirs. Not all of them get justice. In a culture which does not take into consideration a woman’s consent, stalking is considered a legitimate form of courtship. Our leaders call it a form of ‘romance’, underlining the chauvinism that defines their beliefs. Perhaps we need to remind them of Priyadarshini, Geetika and Vinodini. And this unnamed girl committed suicide after being stalked for months. These girls were not wooed. There was no romance. They were driven to their deaths. Or killed. That is what stalking is.