On February 1, another lethal stalking incident came to light, this time from Kerala where a physiotherapy student from School of Medical Education, Kottayam was set ablaze by her stalker – a former student of the same institute – who first doused her and himself with kerosene and then chased her down in his bid to set fire. Both the victim and assailant suffered 70 per cent burns and succumbed as they were rushed to the hospital. It turned out that the victim had registered a stalking complaint against him in the past. Unfortunately, this is a story we have heard way too many times – only names, places and the forms of violence keep changing. Perhaps another time it was an attempted rape or an acid attack.
To the disturbed mind of the self-immolating offender, this may have sounded like a daring narrative of ‘dying together’ in love. News reports may call S Adarsh — the stalker who set K Lakshmi ablaze — a “jilted lover” and his crime “a crime of passion” due to “one-sided love”. But this was murder of an innocent, closely followed by the suicide of her psychologically disturbed murderer. How can there be “love” involved when the obsession will go to the extent of maiming and killing?
A lot of ink has been employed in the recent years on a valid debate about Indian film industry’s subtle pushing of ‘romantic’ narratives which normalise and even glorify stalking as a legitimate means of ‘winning over’ the object of desire aka the woman: the very familiar, insidious ideas of ‘ladki ki na mein haan hai’ and ‘wo meri nahin ho sakti toh kisi ki nahin ho sakti’. The normalising over time has shaped attitudes and detracted us from processing harmful, obsessive behavior, which is characterised by distorted thinking, narcissism, a misplaced sense of entitlement and an inability to take other perspectives into consideration. It is devoid of any empathy towards the victim. Such unadultrated selfishness has been cast over decades as a form of “love”?
The movies alone, however, cannot be blamed because, to some extent, we get the kind of movies that we deserve. These filmic narratives fit into and reflect a larger societal attitude where systemic sexism and misogyny has been cheerfully condoned for many years and where victim-blaming has been a common means of rationalising and trivialising sexual violence. Inputs from a toxic environment, contours of aggressive masculinity and vengeful pathology are factors largely glossed over.
The psychological disturbance of a stalking mind has to be understood specifically; it can be indicative of a range of personality disorders. “The longer the stalking episode persists and the more intrusive it is, the greater the likelihood that a mental disorder is contributing to it”, writes Laura Richards, Founder and Director of the UK based Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service.
At its worse, stalking is the sign of a predator or a sociopath. In India, it took us until after the Nirbhaya case, to get a de facto anti-stalking law. Talk about late.
The legal deterrence factor was absolutely imperative, but is it enough to put in place a law which fines and detains offenders for 3-5 years? Can that alone ensure the safety of victims and potential future targets? We as a society need to become more aware and less tolerant towards abnormal, obsessive behaviors and have trained, sensitized counseling available in educational, corporate and legal institutions to address it at the earliest.