Look who's stalking

Updated: Jul 29, 2019, 08:27 IST | Dalreen Ramos |

As Netflix plays on the stalker-drama trope again with Secret Obsession, experts share why you should take the behaviour seriously, and to tackle it

Representational picture
Representational picture

This month, when Netflix launched Secret Obsession, it messed up by revealing its disturbing plot in the trailer itself. A woman suffering from amnesia is taken to her home by a man who calls himself her husband. But he isn't. He turns out to be just like Joe — the lead character in the streaming service's smash hit You, which premiered last December. The Internet was confused. While one half saw Joe, played by Penn Badgley, for what he was — a stalker and murderer — others declared their love for him. This brings two questions to the forefront — do we confuse stalking with love or do we just not treat the latter as a serious issue? Or perhaps, we find fun in fiction until the seemingly fictional narrative haunts us in reality.

Guide
You follows the story of bookstore manager Joe Goldberg who relentlessly stalks MFA student Guinevere Beck

It's not love
In 2011, 29-year-old Mumbai-based advertising professional Saurabh Agarwal (names changed for privacy) got a call from an old classmate, Kashish, who he had never interacted with previously. "She just said, 'Hi Saurabh, I love you'. I didn't think too much about it. Then, she messaged me that it was a prank," he says. Following that incident, the two met thrice because of common friends. But things took an ugly turn when he started to post pictures of himself with other common female friends. "I got a message that read, 'Oh, you want to befriend my friend and **ck her.' That would keep happening. I immediately blocked her," he says.

Even though Agarwal shifted to another city to pursue a diploma, the stalking didn't end. Kashish would send such messages to others in his life. "She called me from at least 25 numbers and made 20 profiles online, which is how she'd get to my friends. She also threatened to commit suicide if I didn't marry her," Agarwal shares, adding that he didn't want to report her to the police as their families knew each other. "I'd warned Kashish that I would file a complaint and she replied saying, 'At least, I'll see you in court,'" he explains. As the harassment still continues, Agarwal and his parents have got an affadivit signed stating they cannot be held responsible if Kashish commits suicide.

What's legal

Guide
Aakash Parihar, Sonali Patankar and Nirali Bhatia

Section 354 D of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) specifically defines stalking as an act by a man who repeatedly follows, contacts or attempts to contact a woman (unsolicited) or monitors her internet usage or any other form of electronic communication. "Apart from this, sections 354A, 354B, 354C and 509 penalise sexual harassment and intimidation. The law is not gender neutral but then again, you must consider it from the point of view of patriarchy — the fact that this happened because it started off with this gender pattern," says lawyer Aakash Parihar of city-based Triumvir Law. But any person undergoing such an experience can also seek recourse under Section 66E of the Information Technology Act.

"In relationships, stalking is a grey area because partners know so much about each other and there aren't any specific laws. Sometimes, cops can also wrongly book people — stalkers being booked under section 294 (public obscenity) for instance," he explains.

Guide
A still from Secret Obsession

The anatomy of a stalker
Cyber and counselling psychologist Nirali Bhatia says that there are two types of stalkers. "It is either someone who knows you and whom you know, or an absolute stranger with a criminal intent. This obsessive behaviour manifests itself physically and even in the way they post online. Any stalker will drop in extra information which they recently gathered about you," she shares.

And this behaviour is creeping into the lives of children on social media, too. Sonali Patankar, a counsellor and founder of Responsible Netism, an online initiative to promote cyber security amongst children and adults, says that there has been a rise in instances of stalking with the launch of Instagram. "They are craving instant gratification on social media and have public profiles. They are not even aware that they're being stalked until a DM from an unknown sender is received. The perpetrators then ask them for obscene images and they think it's normal. There is also no research on online behaviour available in India at all," Patankar says.

Long-term impact
According to Bhatia, people who have endured stalking become paranoid, like Agarwal who still doesn't pick up unknown numbers, even if it might be a business call. "Some even go into a shell while others slip into a guilt mode; they question and blame themselves. If they've had this experience with someone they know, they develop trust issues. But the extent of impact depends on a person's personality," she says. Apart from seeking professional help and looking up online resources to overcome this, Bhatia advocates talking to people who are close to you. "There's always the fear of being judged but it's always better to talk it out. If you don't have anyone to go to, visit a therapist. People think you should only visit a shrink if you have mental health issues, which is a big myth."

Protect your privacy

Guide
Ritesh Bhatia, cybercrime investigator

  • When you download an app, thoroughly browse through its privacy controls. Check if there are multiple options available when it comes to showing your profile picture, status or photos you post to a select audience.
  • Unfortunately, there are no specific tools to combat stalking because there is no concept of user identification. But always have two phones — this is especially necessary when somebody is stalking you. One can be a smartphone and the other, a feature one.
  • Stalkers also use a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone number which can be easily bought. This allows caller information to be forged.

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