Mumbai: It was over a decade ago, but Isha Arora clearly remembers the day she was first stalked. She was 13, a class VII student on her way to a foreign language class close to her home in Ghaziabad in the National Capital Region. A man stopped her and told her he had been following her for months and that he was “in love” with her.

“He told me that he knows where I stay, the school I go to and what time I leave home for tuition,” Arora told IndiaSpend over the phone. “He even knew that I usually go with my brother but was alone that day. I started shivering.”

The man gave her his number and threatened to pester her over her home landline if she did not call. “I went home shaken and wept for hours,” she said. “I told my father and he warned the guy we would complain to the police if he didn’t leave me alone.” The man heeded the warning and stopped harassing Arora.

This kind of harassment is rampant across India, showed government data. In 2018, 9,438 cases of stalking--one every 55 minutes, on average--were reported in India, as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report released in January 2020. This is more than double the cases (4,699) reported in 2014.

The number of stalking cases reported has been increasing--6,266 in 2015, 7,190 in 2016 and 8,145 in 2017. The crime rate--cases reported per 100,000 women--has also seen a rise. It increased from 0.8 in 2014 to 1.5 in 2018.

Though more cases of stalking and sexual harassment are being reported, it is likely they are being underreported. Only one in 13 cases of sexual harassment in Delhi and one in nine in Mumbai were reported to the police, said a 2015 study conducted by Commonweath Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

Few report to police

Arora was among the few girls to escape an escalation in harassment. In many cases, stalking turns violent and lethal.

In January 2020, a 19-year-old was killed by her stalker at her home in Karakonam in Kerala, 30 km from the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram. The same day, a 17-year-old was repeatedly stabbed on her way home from work in Kakkanad, in eastern Kochi, by a man whose advances she had spurned, reported The NewsMinute.

In 2016, a 15-year-old was allegedly raped and burned on the terrace of her house by her 20-year-old stalker in Gautam Buddh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, just outside New Delhi. The class X student had dropped out of school a year before the incident because she could not deal with the harassment, her family said.

“There are certain perceptions about stalking cases--they are not taken seriously by the society or by the police,” said Ranjana Kumari, director at the Centre for Social Research, an advocacy for women’s rights based in New Delhi. “Hence, it is not easy for women to go and report these cases. There is a lot of hesitancy involved [in reporting].”

These perceptions are further reinforced in popular culture, especially movies where romantic relationships often begin with stalking, added Kumari.

Why police must be sensitised

Women make up 48.5% of India’s population, yet women comprised 8.98% of the police force as of January 1, 2019. None of the states in India have 33% women police as recommended and nine states will take over 50 years to achieve 33% women representation, IndiaSpend reported on November 7, 2019.

“All too often, women seeking justice face hostility or contempt from the very people who are supposed to uphold their rights,” said a 2011 United Nations report on women’s access to justice. “Police, court staff and other justice sector personnel typically reflect the discriminatory attitudes of wider society.”

Women in India are more likely to report robbery than sexual assault though the latter exceed in number, the report found.

There is a gender sensitivity deficit in how Indian police function, said Indian Police Service officer Sampat Meena in a project proposal submitted to the Bureau of Police Research and Development in 2016. “In the context of India, this is like a double jeopardy for Indian women,” said the document. “They suffer because of the prevailing social factors which see them in a particular value framework. They also suffer as victims when they interface with the police because of the masculinity subculture in police.”

Of the 2,700 families in Delhi that were interviewed for the CHRI study, 2.78% (75) reported that a female member of the household was a victim of sexual harassment in the previous year. In Mumbai, 1.94% (39) of the 2,006 interviewed reported one victim of harassment in the family.

In all, there were 80 such cases from Delhi and 45 from Mumbai. In Delhi, 74 cases were not reported to the police--52 because the victims said they did not want to be entangled in a legal case. In Mumbai, 40 cases went unreported and in 26 cases respondents said they feared retaliation.

This reporter conducted a poll on her Instagram account and seven women (of her 648 followers) spoke of being stalked. None of them had reported the crime to the police.

Source: Crime Victimisation and Safety Perception, 2015

Few convictions

The CHRI study only looked at cases that fell in four categories: lewd or unwelcome sexual comments; continuously stared at in a lewd or threatening manner; followed by men till you were scared or uncomfortable; and touched indecently/groped/pinched.

In 68 cases in Delhi and 22 in Mumbai, lewd or unwelcome sexual comments were passed. Women were followed by men till they were scared or uncomfortable in five cases each in both the cities. Only one of these five cases in Delhi was reported and none were reported to the police in Mumbai.

Even among the cases that do get reported, many are pending investigation and even fewer lead to convictions. In 2018, a total of 12,947 stalking cases were under investigation--9,438 new cases and 3,505 cases pending from previous years--NCRB data show. Four cases were re-opened for investigation.

Almost a third (31.4%) of the cases were pending investigation by the end of 2018, and a tenth (10.7%) of the cases were disposed of without a chargesheet being filed.

Women find it hard to report harassment, said Tara Narula, a Delhi-based lawyer and gender activist. “The first hurdle is reporting,” said Narula. “Police find thousands of ways to refuse filing cases. Most cases of stalking are settled within the police station, whether an FIR [first information report] will be filed or not is another question.”

Even if a case is filed, the police may not take action fast enough, she said. “They may not make any arrests and if the victim needs protection, she will have to go through another procedure,” Narula pointed out.

The conviction rate for these cases has been low. Fewer than a third of the cases (29.6%) resolved in 2018 led to convictions, said the NCRB report. In 2014, 34.8% cases led to convictions and since then, the rate has been less than 30%, data show.

Dealing with trauma

Stalking takes a toll on the mental health of victims, said experts. “Victims are always in fight-or-flight mode and hypervigilant,” said Sakshi Kaur Hira, a Mumbai-based psychologist. “This can lead to anxiety and other physiological problems. Victims also begin second-guessing themselves and their decisions.”

“I started becoming more conscious about my clothes, my actions and the routes I take,” said Kavita*, 25-year-old psychologist from Ajmer in Rajasthan, about the time she was stalked by a boy in her neighbourhood. “We used to go to the same gurdwara and he would follow me there too. Eventually, I stopped visiting the gurdwara.”

Victims who are worried that anxious parents will curb their freedom do not confide in them either, said Hira. “They then start leading a double life,” she said.

Kajal*, a 26-year-old journalist based in Gurugram, who was stalked by a friend’s friend for over three years, kept her fears to herself for this reason. “I had just started going to college and I would have had to deal with restrictions,” Kajal said. “Also, since he was an acquaintance, my parents would have questioned my judgement.”

What needs to be done

It is important that these cases be taken more seriously and technology be used to encourage reporting, said experts. The police too need to be sensitised about dealing with issues relating to harassment and police stations have to be made more accessible for women, they said.

“There are women’s help desks but the police need to register FIRs in an expeditious fashion,” said Narula. “Also, there needs to be a collective change of consciousness in the society. The offence needs to be taken seriously.” Quite often, frustrated stalkers end up attacking their victims so these cases have to be dealt with fast, said Kumari.

“Online or telephone reporting of these crimes should be made possible,” she said, pointing to apps such as Himmat that enable women who are stalked to raise an SOS alert and notify the police in Delhi.

(*Names have been changed to protect identities)

(Shreya Raman is a data analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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