He would sit outside her house all morning, waiting for her to step outside the door. He would follow her to classes, stand outside the window of her classroom and watch her. He would then follow her from college on his two-wheeler. He even became acquainted with her best friends to keep tabs on her daily routine. The stalking that Keerti*, an architect in Bengaluru, suffered at the hands of her neighbour took an immense toll on her mental health, she says.
Neeraj* lived doors away from Keerti in Bengaluru’s Koramangala and for months he used to stalk her. “This happened in 2010 when I was in my first year of college. For months he would come and stand outside my tuition building, he would wait for me outside my house and he would follow me when I would go out with my friends,” she says.
Eventually, Keerti and Neeraj got into a relationship but things took a turn for the worse, she recalls. Neeraj began monitoring her every move. He would snoop on her, read her private conversations with friends on her phone. Neeraj would ask her friends about her whereabouts and was constantly suspicious of her.
“When I broke up with him, he would threaten to tell my parents that we had sex. He always wanted to know where I was and what I was up to,” she says.
Over a year into their relationship, Neeraj picked a fight with her outside her college and slapped one of her male friends. When they were on their way back home, the two continued to argue on the two-wheeler. Keerti demanded that he stop the bike, and Neeraj slapped her in the middle of the road, she says.
Neeraj continued to stalk her for the three years when they were together and two years after she broke off with him. He also barged into her home and told her parents that she had to marry him “since they were already having sex.”
Just like Keerti, every year, numerous women in India face harassment and in many cases they are killed by stalkers. According to the Karnataka State Crime Records Bureau (KSCRB), 594 cases of stalking were registered in the state in 2019. Of these, 243 of them were registered in Bengaluru city alone. The data also showed that the number of stalking cases being reported has increased over the last three years. In 2017 and 2018, there were 468 and 498 cases of stalking registered in the state; and 177 and 180 cases registered in Bengaluru city respectively.
While there are several cases where survivors of stalking are able to distance themselves from their stalkers, the trauma and mental toll it takes on these women is immense.
Fear of stepping out and more
“After that incident where he slapped me, the physical abuse continued. I was always looking over my shoulder wondering if he was following me. I would avoid speaking to people and I was withdrawn all the time. I was always scared,” says Keerti, who developed anxiety and was prone to having panic attacks.
Speaking to TNM, Naina, a counselling psychologist with The Alternative Story, says that stalking can lead to the survivors feeling unsafe as their personal space is constantly invaded.
“This can lead to further impact like feeling the need to be cautious all the time, as the person might feel threatened by the incidents. If stalking is experienced offline, then it leads to a person feeling afraid to step out. A person can constantly be worried that their daily activities are being monitored or closely viewed, and that can be very overwhelming and disturbing for them. It can lead to them constantly predicting the worst-case scenario,” she says.
Swati*, a 26-year-old UI designer, came to Bengaluru from Cuttack in 2016 and began working at a private company. Swati and her colleague Ramesh* got to know each other and during an office outing, he expressed interest in her. Swati, however, turned him down. It was after this outing, she says, that Ramesh began stalking her.
“He would follow the office cab to my house. He once came and banged on my door at 1 am and when I opened, he was drunk and he began threatening me with dire consequences. I shut the door and couldn’t get out of the bathroom for hours because I was scared,” she says.
Ramesh continued to stalk her and one night in April 2017, he threw a bottle of kerosene into her bedroom window. “I lived on the ground floor of a four-storey apartment. The bottle was luckily closed. I was so scared. I spoke to him through the window and he said he only did that to get my attention and did not want to harm me. The next morning, I got thick blinds and also glued the blinds to the window frame,” Swati says.
Swati was initially scared to go to the police but in August 2017, she approached the Bengaluru Whitefield division police and informed them about the stalking. “I did not want to file a police complaint because I did not want my parents to find out. If they did, they would bring me back to Cuttack,” she explains.
The police warned Ramesh and let him off, she says. Swati eventually moved to a gated community in south east Bengaluru and lives on the 12th floor of the apartment building. “At least I know he won’t be able to throw kerosene into my bedroom,” she says.
Impact on mental health
According to Naina, stalking can have a traumatic impact on a person. The survivor may experience anxiety, depression and in many cases that can manifest in the form post-traumatic stress, where the survivors experiences nightmares, flashbacks of the incident or have consistent, repetitive and disturbing thoughts about the incident or of future scenarios.
“Depending on the intensity of stalking and the situation, the person might experience guilt and shame as well. Self-blame and difficulty in reaching out for support are a common experience. Women are the survivors of stalking more often. And in the patriarchal culture, they're very often the ones held responsible for their own experience of abuse. It is important to state that it isn't their fault and stalking is a behavior that is not acceptable,” she says.
Rashi, a victimologist and Director at The Alternative Story, says that initially, survivors feel confused and begin to doubt themselves on whether the stalking is in itself unreasonable. She says that the normalisation of stalking as the man expressing his love for the woman is one of the main reasons.
In Keerti’s case too she says that she got into a relationship with Neeraj believing that stalking was the way men approached women. “I thought it was normal but I still felt in the back of my mind that it was really creepy. I was confused,” she admits.
Rashi says that the survivors often withdraw and avoid indulging in activities that they normally enjoy and even refrain from doing things they are passionate about just to avoid the stalking.
In Swati’s case, she shifted jobs and also stopped going out with her friends fearing that Ramesh would follow her. Keerti, however, says she stopped going for site visits for college projects as Neeraj would question her whereabouts.
“Survivors have difficulty concentrating. They become irritable, are more withdrawn and are also scared of being alone. They become insecure and are unable to trust easily. They also have problems with intimacy,” Rashi says.
In Keerti’s case, she stopped talking to her friends about herself fearing Neeraj would hear about it.
“I would avoid making eye contact with my friends and was always withdrawn because I didn’t know if they would understand what I was going through. They would ask me why I was still with a guy like him,” she says.
Dr Divya Kannan, a clinical psychologist with Mind.fit, says that mental illnesses may manifest in ways that the person might feel hypervigilant, and cautious. The survivor may also feel unsafe and distressed when there are any triggers or reminders of the incident.
“They may experience nightmares, depressed mood, and disturbed sleep, and feel a loss of control over the situation they are facing. Responses of the criminal justice and legal system can also impact the suffering the victim endures over time,” she says.
Keerti says that it took her three years to stop being hyper vigilant and every time she passes by the complex where she used to hang out with friends or begins to park her bike outside her house, she looks over her shoulder and scans her surroundings to see if Neeraj is around.
Why it is difficult for survivors of stalking to seek help
Naina says that survivors of stalking may or may not seek help depending on the accessibility of resources and their own experience during the incidents of stalking.
“Some might be aware of helplines and support provided by the legal system or by mental health professionals, whereas some might not be aware of these services. Another factor is whether the person has people who are supportive and take a stand for the survivor of stalking,” Naina says.
Swati sought help from a counsellor and is still scared to tell her parents about the incident, fearing backlash. “I wanted to file a police complaint but I know my parents will blame me for it. They will ask me why I entertained the man in the first place. I don’t know if I will go for counselling but I know I am not able to get over the incident or how it still gives me nightmares. Sometimes I don’t know if the flashbacks I have actually happened or if I am imagining it,” she says.
Naina says that for survivors like Swati, the guilt, self-blame or shame poses as an obstacle to seeking support. “This is because the person might hold themselves responsible and that can impact their ideas of self-worth. It might also impact their willingness to share this experience as they hold themselves responsible for it. However, seeking help is essential if the person is experiencing distress. It can be really overwhelming to deal with the impacts of stalking and it is important that difficult feelings that arise from such incidents are addressed,” she says.
In Keerti’s case, she was scared of filing a complaint with the Koramangala police fearing that the authorities would blame her. “When things got out of hand, my parents met his (Neeraj’s) parents. His mother questioned my upbringing. Even the police put the onus on me, which is why I never ended up filing a complaint. I did go for therapy and it took me three years to come out of it. I am still wary and I still look over my shoulder once in a while,” she says.
Why it is important to make men aware
Rashi says that stalking falls under a grey territory as it is not just an issue that affects the mental health of survivors but is also a reflection of societal norms. Films and TV shows that portray stalking as romantic are also a large contributor to the trope that being “followed by the man is normal,” she explains.
“It starts with adolescents. They watch movies, their friends and family members and begin emulating that behaviour. When awareness about stalking is created, we always talk about safety apps for women, ask women to be more vigilant, tell women to carry pepper spray or have an app open which has an SOS option. But we rarely talk about creating awareness among men, which is crucial,” Rashi says.
She maintains that the first step is to create awareness among boys in schools and men in colleges. She says that men need to be taught the concept of consent and what is masculinity and why stalking is not romantic or being violent is not an expression of love.
“Men are rarely told these things. When we begin to have these conversations with adolescent males, it can have a huge impact. Most of us women would have been followed or stalked by some boy in school or someone in college. When men are never corrected, they continue doing these things in the name of romance. This attitude has to change,” she says.
*Names changed on request