Editorial: Tackling the stalker syndrome

A 20-year-old college student was pushed to her death in the path of an oncoming local train at St Thomas Mount station by a man who was her stalker.
 St Thomas Mount station
St Thomas Mount station

Last week, Chennai woke up to a nightmarish incident that highlighted our helplessness when confronted by the heart of darkness that governs the impulses of man. A 20-year-old college student was pushed to her death in the path of an oncoming local train at St Thomas Mount station by a man who was her stalker. The incident, which took place in full public view, brought back memories of another young woman, a techie named Swathi who was murdered in broad daylight in Nungambakkam station in 2016. The perpetrator who hacked her to death, was her stalker.

The random nature of the recent murder inspired discussions across the board. A few opined that the presence of adequate police personnel on patrolling duty in major public transit points would have acted as a token deterrent for wrong doers, who might think twice before lashing out. Others countered this by saying that police cannot be expected to be ‘everywhere, all the time’. Some expressed their disappointment about how India’s public transport infrastructure itself is in shambles, and that barring the metro rail and airports, anybody could walk into a bus depot or a suburban railway station, armed with lethal weapons.

What has come into focus is the need for clear cut guidelines on dealing with people exhibiting stalker-like behaviour. Such laws are well-defined in the US, where for instance, a court can issue a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order to protect a person in a situation that involves alleged domestic violence, child abuse, assault, harassment, stalking, or sexual assault. Similarly in England, under Section 42 of the Family Law Act, 1996, a non-molestation order can be granted by the court, to safeguard an individual from harassment or intimidation. Having said that, a 2002 study in the US concluded that 40% of the time, restraining orders have been violated, only to be followed up with worse events 21% of the time. Statistically, the issuance of a restraining order might have a little more than 50% of success rate, but it still provides some reassurance.

However, there’s one aspect of this case that cannot be addressed by law per se. And that is the question of nature versus nurture; or the values that individuals grow up with. For the longest time, male children, in both rural and urban homes, irrespective of economic strata that they belong to, have grown up in milieus where they have seen men assert a certain level of patriarchal superiority or control over women. They see it at home and such notions are reinforced in mass media like cinema and TV serials, which have the dubious distinction of perpetuating cringe-worthy stereotypes of male chauvinism for decades together.

The impact of segregating boys and girls into separate groups during the school days, emerges later in life, when important questions regarding personal autonomy, sexual agency, and more than anything, consent comes to the fore. The fact that men cannot take no for an answer has been questioned in the country’s haloed courts where cases of marital rape are being contested. But here’s the deal, no amount of lawmaking can bring about social reform, unless that singular unit called a family chooses to address such concerns from within. Like that old, but still relevant public service ad said, “Let’s not teach our boys not to cry; let’s instead teach them not to make girls cry.”

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