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


  1. Very detailed and articulate.
    Stalking, a grave deterrent to a progressive society. This issue requires more attention.

  2. Great article, full of insights. Keep it up.

  3. Intellectual and thought provoking article on a mostly shushed up and "shoving under the carpet" kind of topic. Hope it helps the people to identify and come out against stalking if they or their friends are facing it. Keep it up.

  4. Very nice article indeed. This reminds of my college days, when many girls living in girls' hostel receive unwanted love(r) calls from men who they didn't even know by names, leave aside having met. In my two years of living away from home, in India, I too ended up being one such victim of such stalking incidents (over phone, unwelcome gifts included). Not many of us, had the courage to speak up against this and sadly most these incidents transformed as mere gossips amongst friends sharing similar experiences. A couple of hours ago, I happened to mention one such incident to a friend in Toronto and saw the dismay on her face when I mentioned its an insignificant past. I came back home to read this article by you and I admit that I do feel embarrassed for my ignorance, lack of courage to speak up against this wrong and take the right actions on right time. What is worse is that I had accepted that as an insignificant incident of past. ... and I now exactly see why it is so important to know our rights, the laws around to protect us. Ignorance is never a bliss, and definitely not an excuse


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