Early this month, Chennai-based journalist Greeshma Kuthar found herself being stalked by a stranger at a prominent junction in Anna Nagar. The stalker stopped her and tried to initiate a conversation; Greeshma did not engage with him and simply rode ahead. He sped up and came in front of her scooter. Following a verbal exchange, she filed a stalking complaint with the police against the man, who was eventually nabbed by the police.
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Greeshma, however, is not alone. In fact, in her tweet thread, she mentions that several of her friends too have been “followed/accosted many times by cars in Anna Nagar itself”. R Regina, a Madipakkam resident, recounts her stalking experience when she resumed working from office after the lockdown. “This man, who lives two streets away from my residence, has been on the prowl for the past few weeks. I do not know how to stop him,” the 25-year-old says.
An alarming number of women have been subjected to stalking in different walks of life, but while accounts suggest a steep rise in stalking incidents in Chennai, most are not reported to the cops as indicated by the numbers.
|Year||Number of stalking cases||Number of cyberstalking cases|
This data above, pertaining to Chennai city, underlines the need to sensitise women on stalking and how they can seek redress or police support.
International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC), an NGO that creates a support network for women facing domestic and interpersonal violence, defines stalking as a pattern of behaviour characterized by repeated, unwanted contact, harassment, surveillance and monitoring of an individual that causes uncertainty and fear.
According to the Indian Penal Code, a stalker is one who follows another person and contacts or attempts to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite the latter’s disinterest. The stalker also often monitors the activities of the victim on the Internet and reaches out through email or other forms of electronic communication.
Stalkers can be people one knows very well or complete strangers. Women are more vulnerable to being stalked and they are most often pursued by ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends, ex-partners, men who are persistently propositioning them and cannot take no for an answer, etc.
Signs to watch out for
- Waiting for the victim at the latter’s home, workplace or neighbourhood, uninvited
- Persistent phone calls, emails and messages
- Breaking into the victim’s home or vehicle and taking personal possessions
- Vandalizing, defacing personal property
- Hacking into the victim’s email, bank account etc
- Leaving gifts such as flowers, sweets at the front door, near the vehicle etc
- Posting threatening or personal information on online forums
- Spamming personal inbox and social media accounts
- Using GPS or other tracking software to keep track of whereabouts
- Using spyware to keep track of computer activity
If you recognize any of these signs, feel vulnerable and unsafe in public or in your home, feel watched at all times, feel stressed, experience loss of appetite and sleep etc, please seek help immediately. Stalking is a high-risk behavior that requires immediate intervention to ensure your safety.
Risks of cyberstalking
Ever since the pandemic took siege in our cities, instances of traditional stalking have gone down, but only to be replaced by a new menace. The increased usage of digital applications has opened up a whole new world for perpetrators to bait their victims remotely, sometimes following them even without their knowledge.
R Sangeetha, a 21-year-old student, found herself in a spot when her classmate was constantly on the prowl on the web. “I did not know that I was being cyberstalked until I read about it. At the end of every presentation I made, the stalker would leave me unwarranted text messages and respond to every social media post of mine,” she said.
Sangeetha, then, took the issue to the notice of the professor-in-charge of her class, who counselled the stalker and strictly prohibited such behaviour.
“Identifying physical stalking is easier than cyberstalking, which is a rather grey area. Students and working professionals spend a majority of their time online due to the pandemic. Hence people should always be mindful and root out cyberstalking in the early stages. The hidden agenda that a stalker has grows with every passing day. The stalker may try to engage with a person in different stages on various levels,” says Sandhiyan Thilagavathy, founder of AWARE, an NGO that works on areas of gender-based violence and provides support to victims.
Sandhiyan suggests looking out for the following signs to identify cyberstalkers:
- Engaging with one’s social media post immediately after it is posted, consistently
- Participating in office meetings when their presence is not required/mandated
- Over-involvement while someone is making a presentation
- Trying to initiate emotional conversations privately
- Giving unwarranted and excessive time and attention in online interactions
- Leaving too many text messages/emails
“If a person views a status immediately, it is normal behaviour. But when the person reacts to it and tries to engage with the post persistently, it is considered stalking,” Sandhiyan adds.
What does the law say?
Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code criminalises stalking. When a stalker is punished on the first conviction, he or she may attract imprisonment extending up to three years along with a fine. When the same stalker is punished on a second or subsequent conviction, he or she may be imprisoned for up to five years, along with a fine.
While cyberstalking is a crime under Section 354D, a stalker can also be booked under the Information Technology Act, 2000. Section 67 of the IT Act criminalises the distribution of salacious/obscene materials through electronic media. If found guilty of the crime, the stalker will be imprisoned for five years along with a penalty of Rs 1 lakh. If the same incident is repeated, the stalker is liable to be punished with 10 years of jail and a penalty of Rs 2 lakh. If the stalker is found to have misused the personal information of the victim to post an obscene message or comment on any electronic media, it is recognised as defamation and can attract two years of imprisonment or fine or both.
However, while laws have defined provisions and clauses to punish a stalker, reporting of incidents and conviction rates remain conspicuously low.
Sudha Ramalingam, advocate at the Madras High Court, emphasises the importance of reporting the incident. “By and large, crimes against women and children go unnoticed only due to their reluctance to take the first step towards justice by lodging a complaint,” she says.
While filing a complaint is one part of the process, Sudha underlines the next important step — following up. “The complainant should follow-up at regular intervals to ensure the complaint is registered and acknowledged. More often than not, people are frightened and try to put off the complaint,” Sudha adds.
Activists also underline that the police should take all such complaints seriously and act on them exactly as the law demands, that is, file an FIR and take appropriate legal action instead of trying to “warn” the stalker or arriving at some sort of “compromise.”
“Even before a woman complains to the police, she would have already made it clear to the culprit that she does not want to be contacted/followed by the stalker. If the matter is escalated to the police, it means that the stalker is unwilling to give up and poses a threat to the complainant. It is essential for the cops to take such complaints seriously and act according to the rules,” feels Iswarya V, campaigner #CallingOutStalking.
Five things you ought to do if you are stalked
- Collect proof and evidence of stalking when situation permits (photographs of the person following you, screenshot of messages, etc.)
- Change your route if the person is following your trail or change your privacy settings if cyberstalked.
- Lodge a complaint against the stalker online or offline
- If you visit the police station to lodge a complaint and in the case of cop not cooperating, you can approach higher officials (see link below on how to file an FIR)
- Follow-up rigorously
Source: Sudha Ramalingam and Balu Swaminathan, retired additional superintendent of police and cyber expert.
Helplines and resources
It is important to guarantee protection when a woman feels threatened and in danger. Here are some helplines to reach out to if you are being stalked:
General police helpline that can be used by anyone to lodge a complaint
- Dial 181
The women’s helpline is available 24 x 7 and can be used by women who face domestic violence or sexual harassment. The helpline will provide police assistance, legal aid and medical help including ambulance services. The helpline will also disseminate information on the government schemes that benefit women.
- Dial 1091
The women’s helpline was launched as a mode of easing access to police and removing any stigma or fear that women may have of approaching the police. The calls will be dealt with in the same manner and urgency as calls placed on the general police helpline, 100.
- AWARE: 8122241688
AWARE is an NGO that works on areas of gender-based violence through sensitisation and provides help for women affected by violence.
- Kavalan SOS app
It is a mobile application developed by the Tamil Nadu Police Department as a part of the Tamil Nadu State Police Master Control Room initiative, which can be used to seek police assistance instantly in emergency situations.
Are we addressing the bigger problem?
The Greater Chennai Police has rolled out a number of initiatives to protect women that include patrolling, installation of CCTV cameras, Amma patrol etc. Despite continuous efforts, crimes against women continue to happen. To the question on whether we are addressing the root problem, Swarna Rajagopalan, managing trustee, The Prajnya Trust, says, “In general, protecting is not the right long term policy approach when we look at crimes against women. Protection is for the moment, but will not help rip society off the entitlement that a man has, to stalk a woman and demand her to respond in kind. This comes from patriarchy. If we have to cure the problem, we have to cure the cause”.
Swarna emphasises that patrolling and creating applications are short-term responses to address the problem. “We have to understand and change how men are raised to think about women, which is a long-term and lasting solution. For this to happen, we need to make efforts to have sustained conversations across the board,” she adds.