Hyderabad-based Ameena* loved to study. The 13-year-old class 8 student had dreams of becoming an airhostess one day.
But now, Ameena is too scared to go to school. She is terrified of staying in her own home, so much so, that her mother Sanaa* sent her to her khaala’s (aunt) place.
For the most part of June and July, Ameera was allegedly stalked and also sexually assaulted multiple times by a 22-year-old man, Azam. In early August, he abducted Ameena and took her to Gulbarga. Over a two-day period, he took her to hotels and sexually assaulted her once again.
Then he brought her back to Hyderabad, and left her near her house. The traumatised teenager found her way home, and her parents filed a complaint.
“We didn’t know until five days before he kidnapped her,” Sanaa says tearfully. “He had been harassing her for months. He said he loved her, wanted to marry her and slit his wrist. He said, ‘If I can kill myself, what makes you think I won’t do this to you or your brother and sister?' He threatened her… She is just a little girl. She was scared, so she didn’t say anything to us,” she rues.
Stalking is often portrayed in popular culture as a legitimate way for a man to pursue his love interest, regardless of her age or agency.
In real life, however, it has led to even murder -- like the death of Chennai techie Swathi who was allegedly killed by her stalker.
TNM spoke to two women who are survivors of stalking and Ameena’s mother – and their experiences prove how stalking is no trivial matter.
For Ameena, it began when the teen would go to the terrace to do her homework. Azad saw her there. He would allegedly climb over a broken wall, and come to the terrace and talk to her. He proceeded to profess undying love to her and began harassing her.
Achyuta Rao, a Hyderabad-based child rights activist who has taken up the case, tells TNM that he then began sexually assaulting the girl. He would force her to swallow an emergency contraception pill, too.
When Ameena continued to resist Azam’s advances, he allegedly made his mother call Sanaa to ask for Ameena’s hand in marriage. “I was shocked! It is my daughter’s age to play with toys, how can you ask for her to be married to your son? She (Azam’s mother) said, ‘You don’t know what my son can do, he will kill himself.’ How is it my innocent daughter’s fault? She should have spoken to him!” Sanaa exclaims.
Five days later, Azam allegedly forced Ameena to grab some money from the house and take a tablet. “The tablet made her drowsy, and he just dragged her off. We were frantic! We told the police… She came back two days later and she wasn’t able to recognise us… She wasn’t in her senses. She just kept saying that every time she woke up in the hotel, she would be in a lot of pain,” Sanaa narrates.
“There were cuts on her arms and legs… like thorns had pricked her. We kept her so lovingly, never raised a hand on her. And he had been hurting her for months. How could he do this?” Sanaa cries.
Azam was arrested by the police. However, he told Ameena that he would come after her whenever he was released, reported Uma Sudhir for NDTV.
“He should never get bail,” Sanaa insists. “I hope my daughter is able to recover and pursue her dreams. She is too scared to even go out of the house now,” she says.
While sexual harassment is never a woman’s fault, the onus often falls on them to restrict their own movement. For instance, Bengaluru-based Seema* began to avoid hanging out at Brigade Road when an unknown man started calling her and sending her obscene messages.
It started in in July last year when Seema was transferred in her media job from Mumbai to Bengaluru. A couple of days after she moved, the 25-year-old got a call from an unknown number in the wee hours of the morning. “He just started panting and talking about how he wanted to have sex with me in the most crude words possible,” Seema recalls with disgust.
“He said that he would see me on Brigade Road and he wasn’t able to resist the ‘urge’,” she says.
Over the next few days, the calls became more frequent.
“This guy was obviously following me because there was no way he could have described things like my earrings from afar. Initially, I would take Brigade Road because I wanted to figure out who this man was so I could report him. But now I started getting scared. I stopped going there, and always wanted to have a friend with me. I couldn’t concentrate on work,” Seema recounts.
Even when she blocked his number, he would attempt to call her almost 40 times in a day. He would send long explicit messages to her. Finally, one day when he called, she handed over the phone to a male friend. The man hung up. When he called again, Seema gave the phone to another friend. The calls stopped after that.
She explains that the idea came to her from a previous experience when she was 19. A guy got her number from a mobile recharge shop, and made his friends call her incessantly and tell her to date him. The calls stopped after she handed over the phone to some male friends a couple of times they called. “I don’t know why that worked but it did. It’s almost as if they respected another man telling them to back off than me saying it,” Seema says.
Stalkers needn't always be strangers.
26-year-old Jui suppresses a shudder every time she remembers the months following the breakup with a long-term boyfriend. She was 21 and based in Hyderabad at the time. Jui and her ex-boyfriend Ankit* had been together for about six years when she decided to end the relationship. But Ankit would often call every day her to say that he would harm himself if she didn’t come back to him.
Soon, it progressed to his relatives calling Jui. “They would try to guilt me into talking to him. They said that he would kill himself if I didn’t talk to him,” she recalls.
One day, Jui was taking a phone call at work when she saw from the glass panelled window that Ankit was standing outside her office. She called him to ask what he was doing there and that she wouldn’t get off work for at least five hours. Ankit calmly told her that he would wait. When Jui exited the office, there was no option but to talk to him.
Soon, this became a norm and started happening twice or thrice a week.
Jui remembers a particularly scary incident when she was coming back home from work on her two-wheeler. “It was around 10.30pm. I took a turn and there he was, standing in the middle of the road with his bike, waving me down. I had no option but to stop,” she says.
What happened next terrified Jui. Once she stopped her scooter, Ankit snatched her keys, and refused to give them back unless she spoke to him. “I just grabbed my bag and ran,” she narrates. But Ankit yelled after her, apologising, and saying he would give back her keys.
“But when I came back, he just threw them! I was panicking, I didn’t know what to do. So I just ran in the direction where he had thrown the keys, grabbed them, and somehow managed to start my scooter,” she tells TNM.
She attempted to race away, but Ankit’s bike was faster. He caught up with her and said that if she didn’t stop, he would ram into a tree on purpose. But Jui, now scared out of her mind, continued to accelerate. She says that he did crash his bike into a tree, but she realised that she didn’t care. “I just wanted to get home,” Jui says.
Eventually, Jui’s parents had to get involved. They spoke to Ankit’s parents, and Jui was grounded. Her movements were restricted – partly because her parents didn’t approve of the relationship, and partly because they were worried for her safety. Ankit attempted to follow her a few more times, but it stopped finally after she moved out of Hyderabad, and he moved out of the colony they both lived in.
The whole ordeal lasted 4-5 months, Jui says. While she resented the restrictions imposed on her, she admits that she was too afraid to venture out alone too. However, it didn’t affect how she felt about moving and travelling in the long run.
“As women, we are anyway forced to be careful at all times, and not just in deserted and dark places. It’s sad that we cannot let our guard down. In that sense, the experience didn’t make me wary or restrict my movements. But it did affect how I perceived and trusted my partners in my future relationships,” she says.
Stalking is a criminal offence in India under section 354D of the Indian Penal Code. A man convicted of stalking a woman faces imprisonment of up to three years and/or a fine in the first instance. This can extend to a five year prison term in case of the second conviction.
Apart from the IPC, women in Tamil Nadu can also book stalkers under the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Of Harassment Of Women Act, 1998. A man booked under this act can be imprisoned for up to three years and fined at least Rs 10,000.