Stalking in Hindi has a somewhat weird meaning — “peecha karna”. But is stalking really just “peecha karna”? A big no.
Varnika Kundu, the 29-year-old daughter of an IAS officer, who was allegedly stalked in August by the son of an influential politician in Chandigarh, puts it in perspective. “Stalking is rather a precursor to much more serious crime,” she said.
Before 2012, laws in India had no provision for punitive punishment in cases of stalking . It was only after the brutal rape and murder case of December 16, 2012 that stalking was made a “bailable offence”. Under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, stalking was made a punishable offence under Section 354D of the IPC, with imprisonment of up to three years for first-time offenders.
However, this law is believed to have a serious loophole – the first offence of stalking is “bailable”, implying the accused need not be produced before court for seeking bail and can walk to freedom from police station itself.
It was only because of this “bailable” portion of the Section 354 (D) that Vikash Barala, the accused in the Varnika’s case, was out on bail on the same day he was arrested.
The Justice Verma Committee, set up in the aftermath of the gangrape and murder case of December 16, 2012, had recommended that stalking be introduced as a non-bailable offence with one to three years in jail as punishment. It was accepted by the UPA government and seconded by a Parliamentary Standing Committee.
However, due to the Opposition of many in the opposition parties, the bill was tweaked. And in a Bill introduced in Parliament subsequently, the first offence of stalking was made bailable while any subsequent offence was made non-bailable with enhanced punishment of up to five years in jail.
Following Varnika’s case and many more, efforts are once again being made to make first offence of stalking non-bailable. The move has elicited support from many, including Congress MP Shashi Tharoor.
The draft of a Private Members Bill in this regard is being prepared under the aegis of an online portal, The Quint, guided by a team of lawyers, activists, and feedback obtained from people through a campaign ‘Talking Stalking’ launched since the Varnika’s case.
In an interactive session held on Wednesday by the portal, Tharoor said there was a need to “really crack down on stalking, not just as a crime in itself, but as a possible precursor to worse crimes”.
The Congress MP said that “now is the time to talk about stalking”, and that stalkers in India have a “sense of impunity” as it is a bailable offence.
The Thiruvananthapuram MP had wanted to queue up the Bill in the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament, but due to some reasons, he wasn’t able to do so. “I assure you that at the beginning of the Budget Session (of Parliament), which follows very quickly, on the heels of this session, we will have it queued up first in the line,” Tharoor adds. “It just needs amending a national law, pass it and we can expect the state governments to implement it.”
Tharoor also outlined that it was up to the government to take up this issue more seriously. He stated that all the content – including the draft related to the bill, the online petition by Varnika, the feedback obtained from people—should be pitched before Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi.
Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court advocate, said that with stalking not being recognised as a non-bailable offence in the first instance, it emboldens criminals to commit acid attack, rape and murder. “This is a massive lacuna.”
Laxmi Saa, an acid attack survivor who was attacked by a stalker in 2005 when she was 15, said: “I did not live like a victim. I am a survivor. I am not a ‘poor thing’. I have all rights to live my life to the fullest. I have made a place for myself. Support yourself, and only then will others support you.”