Three young friends walk toward a street market in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Photo: iStock

This short film says it all. The definition of stalking is the act or an instance of harassing another in an aggressive, often threatening and illegal manner. Ask any Indian woman if she has faced this kind of behavior at some point in her life, and her answer will inevitably be in the affirmative.

Thanks to the case of a woman named Varnika Kundu, stalking is in the media glare once again. A DJ by profession, she was driving home after  midnight when she was followed around the northern city of Chandigarh by two men, one of them the son of a high-profile political party leader.

Despite their attempts to open her car door at traffic lights and make their way into the vehicle, she managed to call the police and had them arrested. She then went to the police station, accompanied by her father, who is a senior administrative officer, to file a case against the two men.

As is revealed in reports, there is something called a geri culture – a Punjabi derivation of the Hindi word gero, which means “group” – in Chandigarh, where groups of men hang out in expensive cars high on alcohol or drugs and eye women. Sometimes it’s an innocuous way of establishing contact with women and hanging out with them, but sometimes it turns into stalking, as happened in Kundu’s case.

Apparently many women who have faced similar situations are now coming out and speaking about it – but they rarely lodge police complaints because they are sure they will be victimized and harassed and nothing more will come out of it.

‘Geri’ culture exists everywhere

If we dig deeper and take a look at all the Indian cities, we will see that there is a deep-rooted culture of stalking women, following them around, sometimes just to intimidate them, sometimes with worse motives or sometimes just as a game. Men do it in groups, in cars or on motorbikes; some men do it alone, too. And most important, this often has nothing to do with the time of the day, but the phenomenon definitely escalates at night.

If a woman is standing at a bus stop, it is not uncommon to be approached by men in cars asking her to climb in. Some listen to a single “no”, but others are persistent, and some quickly cross the line. If you are traveling in public transport, it is common to see some random guy disembarking with you and trying to follow you to your destination.

When I was a teenager, I had gone for a stroll with a female friend to a shopping area close by. On our way back we were followed by a gang of men in an Ambassador car who were drunk and who wanted friendship with us. When we did not respond, they got out of the car, surrounded us and demanded a response.

The time was 6pm. We just told them we were in our locality and if our neighbors saw them harassing us they would get a solid thrashing. We started walking quickly and got inside the gates of a community complex. The men waited for some time and left.

It did not even occur to us that such an incident could be reported to the police. In fact, we did not say anything about this at home, lest we be stopped from going out.

Curfews for women

In India no matter how progressive, educated, or accomplished you are, and no matter what your age is, you are expected to abide by a curfew.

I might dare say that Varnika Kundu is an exception. Driving around after midnight is not something that many women do. This is mainly because every city in India has gangs of men always on the prowl. Not every woman has the grit, family support or martial-arts training that Kundu has. So Indian women would rather be safe at home before midnight than drive back late and run into a gang like that.

Curfews for women differ from one Indian city to another. In Kolkata, 9pm is an acceptable hour, which can be stretched to 10pm depending on the area a woman lives in, but once it’s beyond that usually the father or mother or brother or husband starts hitting the panic button. In Mumbai it was midnight even a few years back, and women happily traveled in trains at late hours, but now 11pm is a preferable deadline.

But when you are in Delhi, 6pm is the safe cut-off, because something happens to the city as soon as the sun goes down.

Last year I was in Delhi and we had gone for a family dinner to Khan Market. One car was driven by my sister-in-law, in which all the women in the family traveled, and in another car my cousin came with a friend. While driving back home at 10pm it was ensured that my cousin’s friend came in my sister-in-law’s car because the presence of a man would make a woman at the wheel safer at night.

Curfew times for women depend a lot on whether they are accompanied by men. Being with men who are friends or family ensures the curfews can be relaxed, sometimes way beyond midnight and even into the wee hours. But if, say, a gang of girls go out pubbing together and then return home on their own, it is assumed that trouble is inevitable, and if something happens, it’s obviously their fault.

Widespread practice

If you ask any woman growing up in an Indian city if she has been followed, stalked or harassed, she would say she has experienced it at some point in her life. Soma Chakraborty, a content writer by profession, said: “It is sad but true. There is no woman in India who has not been stalked.”

I did a survey on Facebook asking women if they have been stalked and men if they have seen or intervened when women have been stalked.

While a number of women talked about serious situations where they had to call in the police and deal with the mental trauma for months, some said that from college to their professional lives they had dealt  with situations where random men followed them at metro stations or at bus stops, and some even tried to find out where they lived. Some said that by hopping from one bus to another or quickly getting into a passing auto-rickshaw, they had been able to get rid of their stalkers.

Some said they had been molested by random people who just slipped into a crowd even before they could realize what had happened to them. One woman said she was stalked by boys who studied in a high school near her home. She would pass by that school while returning from college and they would follow her to her home, making lewd comments all the way. Her father took along some people and gave them a dressing down and handled the situation.

However, some said that having a group of young men following them  around is sometimes treated by young women as an attention-seeking, harmless activity.

Many men said they had witnessed situations like this and some said they had intervened, while a few said they had never seen a woman being followed or stalked. One gentleman said he had intervened when he saw men photographing women on their smartphones on the metro.

Amrita Mukherjee

Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist and author. She has worked in esteemed publications in India and Dubai and she blogs on women's issues at www.amritaspeaks.com.

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