We all might concur that stalking in India is an annoyingly rampant issue. However, we must also concur that we will not be engaging with the issue entirely without engaging with the culture that furnishes a celebration, even appreciation, of stalking and voyeuristic behaviour. Two issues that have come to the light in the recent past further gives support to this point.
Let’s begin with the first and arguably less repulsive one- the ‘mysterious’ Shah Rukh Khan selfie girl. Print and Social Media was abuzz with a selfie that Khan took recently at Pune’s Symbiosis Institute of Design. However, this craze behind the picture is not only in adulation of the star, but also in wonder of a girl in the background. Soon after the picture went viral, there was a sudden uproar over social media on who the “girl in the olive green T-shirt is”. One only has to google “SRK selfie” to see the news and craze about “the mysterious girl”. In understanding if this is “normal”, “acceptable” or “disgusting”, we should give our verdict after looking at the second instance.
Uttar Pradesh has been dominating the news with the run up to the elections, but in the last couple of days it has been making news for another thing as well- the recharge phone shop racket. In an expose made by Hindustan Times, this thriving racket of Uttar Pradesh was brought to light where the phone numbers of women are sold by mobile recharge shop owners, who collect and store the numbers of women when they come to recharge their phones. A price list is made and the price for the numbers varies on whether the women is “beautiful” or “ordinary”. Most of such sales is followed by constant and repeated calls and sending lewd messages and pictures.
Now although different in terms of the gravity of perversity of both these instances, there is an eerie similarity between them. While the latter instance is clearly a criminal case which will come under the ambit of various sexual and obscenity offences, the former is on a more shaky terrain. How do we understand the overnight stardom of the selfie girl?
It is important to take note that the culture of stalking thrives predominantly through the complicity of many institutions- including social media, mainstream media and even the State. The unresponsive nature of the police in engaging with the UP racket, including cops saying that “arrests cannot be made and no crime is made out”, splits bare how sexual violence receives and thrives on impunity from the State. It is, in this context, safe to say that one of the primary reasons sexual violence is rampant is owing to State impunity.
Mainstream media has been eulogizing and romanticizing stalking since time immemorial. The characteristic ‘chase’ of the protagonist male of his lover is not uncommon to find in many Indian movies, to an extent where stalking almost fits as if it were a requirement in the script conforming to narrative trends. It is from this larger framework where we ought to understand the craze behind the Shah Rukh Khan selfie girl. Within hours since the picture came out, “who is the girl in SRK’s selfie” became trending on Twiitter and Facebook. Comparisons were drawn between the girl and Kristen Stewart and constant updates were made in this “trending story” with new revelations coming out regarding the individual, including her name, residence, education amongst other things.
Now while the UP racket, quite unsurprisingly, did receive unrestrained outrage, the response to the selfie craze has hardly had any critique of the entire craze that was developed over the girl (including many comments on social media which are blatantly lewd). For all we know, she must have already received scores of creepy uncomfortable messages (for which the likelihood is quite high).
It is certainly not an issue in admiring someone, but what is the ethical limit in manifesting this admiration? The conjunctive complicity of various institutions that normalize and legitimizes stalking is why stalking has been invisibilized in our society. We, as a society, no longer see the toxicity in our collective curiosity, that we do not realize when we transcend all ethical bounds in infringing on someone’s personal space and privacy. It is indeed all of us, men and women, who need to renounce this silly culture so that privacy, conceptually and substantially, remains intact.
Sabarish Suresh is a law student at the O.P Jindal Global University, Haryana. He is interested in Criminal Law and Human Rights and also actively writes on gender and sexuality.