On October 6, 2019, Meena* and her husband went to the Kakkanad Infosys police station in Kerala’s Kochi city to file a complaint. A man named Mithun, who is also a distant relative of Meena, had been harassing and stalking their 17-year-old daughter, Ramya* for a long time.
“The man (Mithun) had been constantly behind my daughter, harassing and following her, asking her to marry him. We asked them (the police) to do something,” recalled Meena as her voice began to crack. “The next day, my daughter and the man were summoned to the police station. A police officer asked my daughter if she liked Mithun. She outright said no, in his presence. The officer then told Mithun not to disturb my daughter again, else they would take action against him. They made him sign a register and leave,” the mother told TNM.
However, the police “warning” did not deter Mithun. Two days later, in the wee hours of October 10, Mithun barged into Ramya’s house, doused in petrol. He then poured petrol over Ramya, and set both of them on fire. “Everything happened so quickly; I did not know what was happening. I lost my child, my life. She was brilliant in her studies and secured A plus in almost all subjects…” the mother of the 17-year-old wailed inconsolably.
Months prior to this incident in Kochi, another incident of stalking was unfolding in Thiruvananthapuram district, eventhough it was brought to the notice of the police at an early stage. Nineteen-year-old Ashika and 20-year-old Anu were in a relationship, Ashika’s mother had told the media. However, the relationship was soon over, although the man, Anu, continued to stalk her. This prompted Ashika’s parents to file a complaint of stalking against Anu at the Vellarada police station in May 2019.
The police, however, called both Ashika and Anu to the station, for a “compromise meeting”. Anu promised not to trouble Ashika anymore. “The two parties decided not to take further steps. Hence, we made them sign the record and leave,” the police officer at the Vellarada police station told TNM.
That “meeting” with the police, too, evidently failed to instil fear in the man, as the officials and parents had intended. Over seven months later, on January 6 this year, Anu barged into Ashika's house in Thiruvananthapuram's Karakonam, slit her throat and killed her. The man then took his own life.
Neyyattinkara Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) Anilkumar had told the media that Anu had proposed his love to Ashika again after the police warned him off, although she rejected it.
“They might have been in touch with each other again after that. That’s their age,” the Vellarada police told TNM in retrospect. “We counsel the couple in such cases; the rest has to be done by the parents, who have to be more alert,” he added.
In both these instances of stalking, the parents of the girls had lodged a police complaint against the stalker. The police merely warned the stalkers and let them off.
This invokes a series of questions — why didn’t the police rely on the laws for stalking, which is a cognisable offence in the Indian law, and register an FIR? Why did they instead take on the role of a counsellor or a panchayat member and “counsel” the stalker(s)?
Why cops must be law-enforcers not counsellors
In 2019, Kerala saw four stalking crimes that resulted in murders, in a span of eight months: Kavitha Vijaykumar (20), Neethu (21), Soumya Pushpakaran (34) and Ramya (17). In January this year, two teenage girls were killed and one brutally attacked (and yet to recover) in a matter of 48 hours.
In all these cases, the stalker — who may or may not have known the victim — continued to pursue, harass and threaten them, although the women/girls gave clear signs of disinterest. Stalking ultimately reared its ugly head when the men barged into the lives of these victims and ended it in a few minutes.
In spite of these instances, the police continue to identify stalking as isolated incidents. Even when these crimes were brought to their notice — as seen in two cases — the law enforcers decided to merely counsel or warn the perpetrators.
This, despite the Indian law identifying stalking as a cognisable crime, which means that the police can take notice of them directly, register an FIR and start an investigation.
The officer who handled Ashika’s case told TNM that there have been instances where an FIR has been registered under section 354D (stalking) of the Indian Penal Code, as well as the Kerala Police Act, if they have the girl’s statement. “But, it all depends on the petitioner's statement to the police,” he said, adding that Ashika’s parents had asked them to only warn their daughter’s stalker.
However, his superior, B Asokan, District Police Chief, Thiruvananthapuram Rural, told TNM that if the police receive information about a stalker, they are duty-bound to register an FIR, even if the parents want to pursue the case or not. On the receipt of such complaints, the police have to arrest the accused and produce him before the magistrate. “If they fail to do so, the complainant can apprise the Superintendent of Police or the DSP of the matter,” he added.
Section 354D was added to the Indian Penal Code in 2013 when the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 was passed in the wake of the 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape case.
Under this section, 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, commits the offence of stalking.
The stalker can get upto three years of imprisonment with fine for the first conviction and up to five years of imprisonment and fine for the second or subsequent conviction. It is a bailable offence the first time and non-bailable the second time.
“This section was incorporated to prevent all kinds of acts of violence against women and children. So the very purpose of the section is defeated when the police are not registering a case. If they fail to do so, the crime cannot be curtailed and it will continue to be perpetrated from time to time,” a lawyer with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), who chose to remain anonymous, noted.
In cases of violence against women, it is only natural that parents express anxiety and hope that a warning by the police would instill some fear.
“Instead of giving them confidence that they will register the case and carry out an investigation, the police decide to follow what the complainants want. For them, it is one case less. Yes, they should counsel the parents, but on the importance of filing a police complaint,” noted J Sandhya, a social activist and a lawyer in Kerala.
The Thiruvananthapuram (Rural) District Police Chief also said that apart from section 354D, depending on the facts of each case — that is, if the perpetrator threatens to kill the woman, blackmails her with morphed pictures or abets suicide — other provisions of IPC can be slapped on the man.
“If the men accused of stalking are put through the machinery of law, it would definitely have a better impact on them than just warning them off,” Ashokan IPS noted.
“Besides, how can the police evaluate or understand the psyche of the stalker by just counselling him?” asked Sandhya. “In one month, four girls and their parents approached me, seeking legal recourse in harassment cases. They were willing to come forward to fight it out. So, if the system is not gearing up and the women feel they are not given justice, it is a cause for concern and will not help our women”.
Sufficient laws but no implementation
“Violence is an overarching challenge for realising the full potential of women in India. Progressive laws must be effectively implemented on the ground to eradicate social evils that perpetuate violence against women,” said Anne F Stenhammer, UN Women Representative for India, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka, at a meeting by UN Women in 2015.
Apart from the central laws for the protection of women and children against any forms of harassment or violence, some states have passed their own laws.
Tamil Nadu, for instance, has the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 1998. Under section 4 of the Act, whoever commits or participates or abets harassment of women at any public place, be it an educational institution, a place of worship or a railway station, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term up to three years, with a fine of not less than Rs 10,000.”
Andhra Pradesh recently passed the Andhra Pradesh Special Court for Specified Offences Against Women and Children Act, 2019. This law allows the establishment of exclusive special courts in each district, which will exclusively deal with crimes against women and children, including stalking, voyeurism and sexual harassment.
Kerala, too, tabled a Bill in 2013 — Kerala Protection of Privacy and Dignity of Women Bill, which proposed provisions to prevent harassment of women and any attempts or activities to intrude into the privacy and dignity of women or related matters.
However, the very title of the Bill — “protection of dignity” — exposes the government’s problematic mindset towards women. Dignity, in Latin, means the state of being worthy. While reporting on incidents of violence against women, like rape, many media outlets have often wrongly termed it as the “loss of dignity” of the survivor/victim. However, a woman never loses her worthiness or dignity that it needs to be protected. Besides, in August 2017, the Supreme Court recognised the right to privacy as a fundamental right.
“The Bill had certain loopholes and the provisions were not sufficient to address these types of violence (like stalking) against women. Additionally, there was a lack of political will in passing it as an Act,” explained advocate KK Preetha of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), an advocacy and research organisation.
Instead of deliberating over how to reinforce the provisions, the Bill never went beyond mere discussions and was eventually not passed.
According to advocate A Suresan, the public needs to be self-disciplined, “and for that, we need stringent laws with respect to stalking and harassment cases.”
However, how does passing more and more legislations, but not implementing them, serve the purpose of curbing violence against women?
“Last decade, we did not have sufficient laws to address violence against women. But after the Nirbhaya gangrape incident in 2012, those gaps were filled. In fact, there are no grey areas in the existing provisions that we need another legislation to combat such crimes. Now, this decade, the state has to concentrate on enforcing these laws and making the system emphatic and sensitive,” explained Sandhya, adding, “Failure to implement these laws is when the state fails its women.”
If, in a span of a short period, Kerala is seeing many crimes related to stalking, in the years to come, it is bound to increase, unless the state takes such offences seriously and tries to arrest the situation, activists point out.
Your rights before and after filing complaint
As mentioned, stalking is a cognisable offence. Hence, the complainant has the right to get the case registered with the police at the earliest, and get the FIR (first information report) copy. The offender is supposed to be arrested immediately. After the case is registered, the police need help to identify the witnesses, which, according to Sandhya, is not a hassle.
“What if others come to know, is one of the main concerns of women and their parents. In a few cases I have handled recently, a few women approached me for legal consultations and pursued cases. Their parents were not aware of this. So, one can pursue the case while maintaining privacy. However, it is always good to have support from the family,” she explained.
Some have financial concerns about pursuing a case. “The state or public prosecutor has to argue the case for the woman. Hence, there is no need to worry about hiring your own lawyer.”
Pointing to a recent incident where the father of a 17-year-old in Kochi knew a 26-year-old man was stalking his daughter but did not file a police complaint assuming he would stay away, Sandhya said, “If you give a complaint or not, you or your daughter's life is in danger in such cases. So taking a legal recourse is always safe.”