"If you look at Indian films, they're so based on the idea of pursuing a girl to fall in love with you. That's the whole concept: it's the only way you can attract a woman. So for a women to go to a police station, and say, "Someone's stalking me," that could take a long time before it gets taken seriously."
Audrey D'mello of the Mumbai-based Majilis Legal Center is explaining some of the institutional challenges victims of stalking may face. Her work with the organization—which specializes in helping women and girls who have suffered gender-based violence—brings her into regular contact with Indian women who have experienced stalking first-hand.
According to new National Crime Records Bureau data reported by the Times of India, Delhi is the stalking capital of India. Stalking cases increased by over 50 percent last year, from 541 reports in 2014 to 1,124 in 2015. Meanwhile, overall crimes against women were also up: from 15,265 reports in 2014, to 17,104 the following year. The figures make for grim reading and will do little to ameliorate Delhi's international reputation as the "rape capital of India," following a string of high-profile cases including the 2012 gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey. But stalking is also a reality for women across the country, including Mumbai, where Majilis is based.
While India's long and troubled history of sexual violence against women is well known, the issue of stalking has not generally dominated public debate. Occasionally the most brutal or outlandish cases make the headlines. In 2015, a 19-year-old woman was murdered in a busy Delhi market by her stalkers, two men she had previously reported to the police years ago. Meanwhile, the abduction of a 24-year-old female executive from Uttar Pradesh made headlines across India after it emerged she'd been followed for a year by a serial stalker obsessed with 1993 Indian thriller Darr, in which the lead character obsessively pursues a woman.
Almost all of the stalking cases D'mello and her colleagues deal with involve people who are known to her victims—as many as 95 percent, according to her estimate. The fact that Indian women are overwhelmingly being stalked by men they know, be they neighbors, fellow students, or former partners, is something lawmakers often fail to recognize.
"This is a huge thing," D'mello says, emphasizing that common myths that only strangers are responsible for stalking and sexual violence can make communities blind to what's going on in their very homes. "Most commonly, stalking cases involve women who are trying to get out of a relationship and aren't being allowed to. We had one case of a woman who'd been stalked by a former partner. When she relented to meet him, he forced her to drink acid."
Ingrained cultural attitudes towards dating and relationships can also prevent victims of stalking from coming forward. "It's much easier to report a stranger for stalking you, but if you're in a relationship your family doesn't know about, it's difficult," says D'mello. She tells me that the woman forced to drink acid by her ex-partner hadn't told her parents about the harassment, because of the stigma attached in having an extramarital relationship. "As a result, you can end up making a lot of decisions that are potentially dangerous for you," she explains.
Stalking is illegal in India, but it was not specifically designated as a criminal offence until 2013. Before then, victims of stalking would seek redress via existing molestation laws. However, D'mello argues that not everyone responsible for enforcing the law recognizes quite how deadly and dangerous stalking can be.
"We live in a country where there is so little trust in women, and there needs to be more work done on implementing the laws we already have." The solution to India's growing problem of stalking? Well, it doesn't reside in new laws.
"The government is happy to give us laws for the asking, because it doesn't cost them anything." She highlights recent instances of Indian authorities introducing new legislation in response to public pressure, such as an ordinance requiring companies to provide travel home for female employees working late at night. However, without long-lasting social change, gender-based violence will continue.
That said, D'mello is cautiously optimistic. "I think we have moved away from the time when the police operated with impunity. Sexual violence is now being taken more seriously and some basic procedures are being laid down."