Saturday, September 24, 2016

Stalking: "They do the crime, we do the time"

In 1976, John Hinckley Jr fell head over heels for Jodie Foster after seeing her play the role of teen prostitute, Iris in the movie “Taxi Driver”. The obsession knew no bounds and after relentlessly stalking her for 17 months, in a desperate bid to impress her, he shot the US President Ronald Reagan. The letter he wrote to her that day read, “As you well know by now I love you very much.” A celebrity of that stature stands horrified today to read about Hinkley Jr’s release from the psychiatric hospital. The fear of the unwanted advance levels us- celebrities and commoners alike. Unfortunately, for the latter, the fear definitely takes a form – a perennial shadow for a lifetime, an acid attack or may be death.

Cracking the code of stalking

Let’s be honest. We live in a delirious world that doesn’t acknowledge the gravity of stalking. In common parlance, any act of repeated unwanted advances to the effect of evoking fear or discomfort in the victim is stalking. It may be an explicit display of aggressive behavior like physically following or spying, vandalizing property, threatening calls or assaults. Or even seemingly innocuous acts like delivering flowers/letters, a barrage of text messages, driving by the victim’s residence, photographing the victim or family members and spreading false rumors primarily about the victim’s character.

Sadly we are way too callous about being on guard. The friend who has been pursuing the girl who isn’t interested in him is a “die hard romantic”. The hot girl who pings a guy on social media after every profile update is a “secret admirer”. The exes who wait outside your office to get you back in their lives are “committed to you for life”. On second thoughts, this is understandable. We are a country that swears by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge –the actor who waves a bra at a woman’s face is the pin up guy who reveals his goodness as he stalks her through Europe and finally rescues her from her pigeon-hunting betrothed with everyone’s consent. What better then can you expect from us?

Institutional and societal failure

Undoing this cultural and gender based conditioning is the first step to take cues seriously and pre-empt any mishaps. The victim needs to have confidence to share such incidents and be taken seriously. Friends, family and teachers need to be a bulwark that doesn’t  seek a “compromise” and brush it under the carpet. They need to help the victim in taking adequate privacy and safety precautions. And most importantly the criminal justice system needs to be sensitized to intervene as early as possible.

Anti-stalking laws were first introduced in California in 1990. The condition is far worse in India. Only in 2013 after the public uproar in the Nirbhaya case, Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code criminalized stalking. As per National Crime Records Bureau, the number of stalking cases in Delhi have doubled in one year - from 541 in 2014 to 1,124 in 2015. Police officials fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of a victim’s fear. Ignoring such precursors to violence, not dedicating resources for investigation, not providing for police protection or restraining orders against the suspect are all chronic failures of the system. Challenges posed due to the anonymity associated with cyber-stalking are a reminder for the need to have stringent privacy laws and training in cyber forensics. Stalking victims tend to relocate to different places (may also change city or state) for safety and this calls for the need for co-ordination among officials – isolated events need to be considered together preferably by the same investigating team to understand the bigger picture.

Knowing the stalker

Assuming the stalkers finally come in contact with the criminal justice system, they are not continuously assessed. All stalkers don’t belong to a homogeneous category. They have varied motivations which needs to be understood to deal with them. Unless they talk to psychologists or specialists, they will continue their behavior even after serving their term – posing an even greater danger. In 1993, Australian stalking expert Paul Mullen, conducted behavioral studies and segregated stalkers into multiple categories: intimacy seeking; socially incompetent; resentful and predator stalkers.

This understanding helps to rehabilitate the perpetrators with the appropriate method. For example: Socially incompetent stalkers can be helped with interpersonal skills and also cultivate empathy for their victims. Predator stalkers are handled individually and not in groups, just like in sex offender programs, so that they do not build a network of mutual support for their behavior. Deep insights into their motives helps the law enforcement authorities predict the modus operandi of the assailant accurately and hence provide suitable protection to the victim.

Understanding the stalking victim

Anyone can be stalked. Statistically however, the figures (80% of the stalking cases worldwide) are primarily skewed towards women. Research proves that certain kind of people have a higher risk of being stalked.
  • People working in the media, fashion, journalism, entertainment business and/or possessing a high profile (in terms of social contact and achievements)
  • People exhibiting the “savior complex” i.e. trying to save or rescue others even at the expense of oneself. Such people get personally involved in another’s lives and have a very unassertive way of helping others. So much so that instead of feeling grateful, the other person feels as if “he is almost entitled to this help” and will not allow withdrawal from his life

Having said that, everyone needs to be equally prepared. 

  • If someone is way too interested in your life too soon, makes comments that you would find amusing from even a long term friend or is very eager to accompany you to every social event, keep them at bay. Trust your intuition and at the first signs of abnormality or danger, be firm and tell the person you aren’t interested. It may just be a misunderstanding, so better to communicate upfront. 
  • Ask your network to be careful of not being manipulated into giving your personal information. 
  • If the danger persists, ask for help from the police. During this period, do not try to reason with the stalker else he will believe that he is making progress. 
  • To have someone prosecuted, sufficient evidence needs to be gathered. Hence maintaining a log book of stalking incidents and testimonials to back it is crucial. 
  • It is important that an accurate threat assessment is done which can prompt you to ask for protection or change your routine/place of residence/work. 
  • And finally, getting psychological help during this period is a must.

Stalking is like slow rape. Probably only Karuna, the 21 year old medical student who was stabbed 27 times by her stalker this week in Delhi, could judge whether her gruesome death was less painful than a life lost bit by bit. We failed her at every step. Only we are guilty of murder.  Only we can make this stop.

This article was published in the Quint and Youth Ki Awaaz
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Monday, September 05, 2016

"My dear Teacher, I am sorry for having forsaken you !"

September 5 , the birth date of Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and celebrated as Teachers' Day in India, was never just another event on our calendars. We practiced for days perfecting each step of Madhuri's "Ek Do Teen" at the age of 4. We saved up for months to buy a grandfather's clock for the staff-room at the age of 14. The moments when you could see that rare smile on the face of the strictest Physics teacher or that impromptu tango performance of the shyest Geography teacher - were those for which each student - Mary, Mehnaaz or Meera - waited for an entire year.

Almost two decades later, my teachers and I have still remained in touch. Thanks to social media. My face lights up every time I see her retweet my articles and I remember to wish her on every September 5th. But this year, something was to happen post which Teachers' Day would never be the same before.

On a habitual trip of scavenging for fresh books on the market last month, I ended up visiting the book store that hasn't failed bibliophiles for generations. Even in the chaos of the busiest market in town, the quaint "D.P. Sur and Sons" is reminiscent of the secret corner at home that you retire to for unabashedly smelling book pages. To my surprise, the shop was filled only with books of medical studies. The current owner, Shri O.P Sur, didn't seem amused at my ignorance - almost as if he had got used to politely turning away book lovers with a heavy heart. He was so endearing (I would have cast him as the grand-dad in my version of Kapoor and Sons) that I couldn't stop myself from having a chat. And when I left the shop, I had this gut wrenching feeling - of being a part of a generation whose teachers and guides, in the words of the old man, "felt forsaken and lonely" and "found gratification and solace in the books around them".

Looking back, I feel that even though I love my teachers, I have seldom done enough to express it.Their legacy is us, their students,who somehow don't manage the time to check on their teacher's retirement plans - for most likely they will be lonely as parents too in the sunset years of their lives. Compare the amount of pride that they take in sharing our success stories on social media - with that of our interest in their achievements. Those difficult adolescent years when I felt my family didn't understand me, I found comfort in speaking to that teacher. That cut throat competitive environment where I was pushed a step closer to cynicism , I took a step back to innocence realizing the humility that teacher brought to the classroom every day. Those days of paranoia in office when I didn't get gratification for my work, I thought about my physical education teacher who did her work with unadulterated joy even when we hated her for making us sweat out in the sun. I am what I am for what my teachers have made me - yet I have somehow made peace with not looking back at them just enough. 

To my Teacher.

I am sorry for having forsaken you. I know that perhaps you have already forgiven me. I know that you will probably do everything to deny my fallacies and instead take pride in what I have achieved so far. But you are human too, just like my parents and have every right to feel that anguish that I have caused you by that neglect. 

Everyday the world celebrates me , including this very day at Tata Literature Live, is a gift from you. For all those years that I didn't realize it - every day is Teachers' Day. As I leave the podium, even if one listener feels the urge to leave this room and call his teacher, I will know that my apology has been accepted.

This story was selected as a winning entry and presented at  Tata Literature Live 2016.
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