On Monday, January 6, 19-year-old Ashika, who lived in Karakkonam in Thiruvananthapuram, could not go to class as she did not have money for bus fare. She decided to stay home instead and that decision proved fatal. At around 10.30 am, 20-year-old Anu, who lived just 2 km away, broke into Ashika’s house, slit her throat, and then killed himself. The two had been in a relationship, but when she broke it off, he turned into an angry stalker.
On the same day, 200 kilometres away in Kochi’s Kakkanad, 17-year-old Ramya* was coming back from a daycare centre, where she was working as an assistant care-taker. 19-year-old Amal TB attacked her on the road, repeatedly stabbing and critically injuring her. He was angry she had rejected his advances.
A day later, 17-year-old Sree* was waiting for her father outside her school in Kaloor, when a man she was scared of told her he wanted to talk to her. He managed to persuade her to get into his car. Hours later, her body was found in a tea plantation in Valparai in Tamil Nadu. 26-year-old Safar Shah, her stalker, had brutally murdered her and dumped her body in the tea estate.
Ashika was studying to be a beautician, while Ramya was supporting her family with her job. Sree had been applying for scholarships abroad to pursue her dreams and get away from the man who was threatening her.
While two of them are dead, Ramya continues to battle for her life in the ICU of the Kottayam Medical College with grievous injuries to her head, chest, stomach and neck.
While two of the attackers were in their twenties, the third was just 19. This shocking trend of violence against women in Kerala seems to only be growing more alarming. Last year, four women were burnt to death by their stalkers in the state.
According to experts in criminal psychology and crimes against women, 3 key factors explain this trend - patriarchy, pop culture and police apathy.
Violent crimes triggered by social conditioning
According to Kochi-based psychologist Prasad Amore, in many cases, young stalkers who turn to violent crimes might be predisposed to such tendencies.
"Brain studies and MRI scans of such persons have indicated that their mental processes might be different from those without a criminal inclination. These people gain an unnatural and false sense of courage to perform such violent acts. Of course there is a whole range to these behaviours and not everything may be very violent. In normal situations, when a rejection happens, men and women tend to be sad, lonely or cry it out and not resort to violence," Prasad says.
What cannot be discounted is the role a patriarchal society plays in fostering such mindsets.
"Skewed social views on man-woman dynamics play a major role in these crimes. These stalkers genuinely believe that the woman belongs to them. They believe that they have an upper hand in the 'relationship'. And if a woman says no, they believe that she deserves to be punished. This is why most of these men feel little to no remorse when they commit such violent crimes. They turn themselves in - as in Safar Shah's case - or kill themselves like Anu did,” Prasad adds. Irrespective of what they do, they justify the violence in their minds he clarifies.
Amal. Safar and Anu.
Though Kerala is vaunted for its performance on gender and socio-economic indicators, patriarchy is ingrained in the DNA of the state’s socio-cultural fabric, Prasad believes. And this, he says, is reflected in statistics on crimes against women in the state.
As per the 2017 National Crime Records Bureau Kerala had the fourth highest number of acid attacks, with 13 cases reported that year. In 2018, Kerala recorded eight cases of acid attacks.
A detailed news report on marital rape published as a series by Mathrubhumi News revealed that, between 2015 and 2019, over 3,200 women in Kerala have reported facing some form of sexual violence from their husbands, as per data taken from the State Crime Records Bureau.
Pop culture promotes negativity
Lawyer and former member of the State Child Rights Commission, J Sandhya, believes that popular culture and urban parlance too is to be blamed for enabling stalking and related violence.
"So many slang terms used by youngsters enable feelings of shame/insult when young men face rejection. Take for instance the Malayalam word 'theppu' - which literally means stitching, and loosely translates to being dumped. It is used widely to tease a guy who has faced rejection from a girl. All of this could promote negativity and violent feelings among men," she says.
Finally, the state, and in some cases, families too have failed these young women by not considering stalking a sufficiently serious crime.
"In Ashika's case, the girl's parents had complained to the police seven months ago about Anu stalking her. The police arranged a 'compromise meeting' where the boy promised to not trouble her anymore. Why would the police try to 'compromise' when they are legally bound to ensure the safety of the deceased girl?" Sandhya asks.
In some cases, parents too attempt to de-escalate tensions without alerting the nearest police station, Sandhya adds.
"They try to play it down citing the age of the men and try to talk to them. However, this is a dangerous and mostly ineffective move as the safety of the woman in question cannot be guaranteed. Instead, filing a stalking complaint with the police will ensure some modicum of safety, which the law ensures these women/girls," Sandhya adds.
Since 2013, stalking is a punishable offence in the country, as per section 354 D of the Indian Penal Code, which states that:
Any man who—
follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman; or
monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication,(with conditions), commits the offence of stalking
Ironically, the increased incidence of violent crime against women will only add to the hysteria and panic around women's safety in the state, according to Sandhya. Although there is no proof that restricting women’s movement contributes in any way to their safety, this is the most likely result from such clusters of incidents.
"More parents are going to get anxious about their daughters and this will set off a chain reaction which will see more women losing their freedom. ‘The world around you is not safe’ is what these women will hear as they are caged further," Sandhya adds.