Though perverse, it is probably not surprising that stalking is considered a minor sexual peccadillo in a culture where politicians justify rape couched in a 'boys-will-be-boys' language, and Bollywood celebrities draw crude analogies with rape. Infosys software engineer S Swathi’s brutal public murder by a stalker at Chennai’s Nungambakkam railway station last month, followed a week later by the murder of 19-year-old Sandhya by her stalker in Telangana, drive home the grave dangers posed by the crime. And how lightly stalking is taken as a crime by the authorities.
Police sources have now revealed that Ramkumar, the suspect behind Swathi’s murder, regularly stalked the software engineer on her way to and back from office. On 24 June, around 6.35 am, as Swathi entered the Nungambakkam railway station to go to her office, her waiting assailant hacked her to death on the platform under full public glare.
Sandhya, a resident of Bhainsa in the Adilabad district of Telengana, was brutally murdered by M Mahesh for reportedly rejecting his marriage proposal. Like Swathi, Sandhya too was murdered right outside her house, where the assailant slit her throat with a knife. Sandhya had complained to the police about harassment by Mahesh which continued for almost a year. Instead of taking action against the stalker, the police tried to broker peace between the two sides.
Not so long ago, stalking was not considered a crime despite women’s organisations; long-standing demand that it be included as a sexual offence. The turnabout came – or rather was forced into national discussion – by the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a paramedical student, in the heart of Delhi on the night of 16 December, 2012. The massive public outrage that erupted over the incident jolted the establishment as never before, compelling indifferent politicians to seriously debate sexual violence.
Subsequently, the government-sponsored Justice JS Verma Committee proposed serious amendments to the criminal law – one of which was including stalking and voyeurism among the sexual offences. Following amendments to the Indian Penal Code, new offences like acid attacks, sexual harassment, and voyeurism, came to be recognised as crimes.
But this apparent narrative of progress shouldn’t overwrite the misogynist strain of the debate on the amendments that were made in 2013. Veteran socialist and leader of Janata Dal (United), Sharad Yadav delivered a long-winding speech where – as many of his colleagues cutting across party lines indulgently laughed – he moved from the issue of “sex starved” Indian society to Hindi film item numbers like Shiela Ki Jawani and Munni Badnaam Hui. He argued that laws about stalking and voyeurism are likely to be misused — “Who amongst us have not followed girls?” Yadav asked, much to the amusement of MPs.
Backing Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav said the amendments aimed to criminalise ordinary Indian men. “The bill is not against the average Road Romeo, it is against the habitual ghume wala... The Sun Temple in Konark is full of sculptures of naked women and men. Khajuraho is full of such images. What will you do about them? Cover them up all?” he asked.
It was left to a woman MP, Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), to object to these comments: “I saw even in this frame of the House that there are a lot of men sniggering when there were comments passed about women. It is funny when you are talking about Sheila Ki Jawani. But I am sorry to say this. What it would be once it is your daughter or your wife or your daughter-in-law?”
It is this kind of blatant sexism, articulated in no less a space that Parliament, that incentivises sexual predators. By making such sexist comments, sometimes shielding the rapist, at others vilifying the victim, our legislators have consistently made light of sexual crimes. Of course, politicians are now losing no time – even trying to score points outflanking each other – in condemning the public murder of Swathi. Yet, their condemnations ring hollow in light of their track record.
Swathi’s brutal killing also brings to mind the rape and murder ten years ago, of Priyadarshini Mattoo, a third-year law student, by Santosh Kumar Singh, her stalker. An article in the Outlook magazine (published in 1999) described how Santosh, the son of a police officer, routinely tormented Priyadarshini before the crime by “breaking into her flat on occasion, accosting her in lonely places at times. Priyadarshini cried herself hoarse for help, lodging no less than five formal complaints with various police stations and the dean of her faculty. Even with the commissioner of police.”
If Santosh had immunity as a police officers’ son, at a broader level, stalkers in general seem to enjoy the immunity that comes from a highly misogynist society. At the time Priyadarshini was murdered, our criminal statute books had still not recognised stalking as a crime. But have things really changed now that we have?