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 looking into the culture that celebrates, even appreciates, stalking and voyeuristic behaviour. Two issues that have come to light in the recent past support this point.
Let's begin with the first and arguably less repulsive one—the "mysterious" Shah Rukh Khan selfie girl. Print and social media were abuzz about a selfie that Khan took recently at Pune's Symbiosis Institute of Design. The reason? An attractive woman in the background. Soon after the picture went viral, there was a current through social media about the "girl in the olive green T-shirt" and she became an object of intense scrutiny. In understanding if this is "normal", "acceptable" or "disgusting", we should give our verdict after looking at the second instance.
The selfie craze has received minimal censure despite the fact that the girl was made the focus of attention she didn't want—including blatantly lewd comments.
Uttar Pradesh has been dominating the headlines in the run-up to the elections, but in the last couple of days it has been making news for another thing as well—the phone recharge racket. In an expose made by the 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—they collect and store the numbers of women when they come to recharge their phones. A price list is made and the cost varies depending on whether the woman is "beautiful" or "ordinary". These sales are usually followed by repeated calls and sending lewd messages and pictures.
Now although different in terms of gravity, there is an eerie similarity between these two examples. 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", reveals how sexual violence receives and thrives on indifference from the State. It is, in this context, safe to say that one of the primary reasons sexual violence is rampant is because of the State's nonchalance.
The film industry, meanwhile, has been eulogising and romanticising stalking since time immemorial. The characteristic "chase" of the male protagonist often takes the form of hounding and stalking and not taking no for an answer. It's a narrative trend that is deeply engrained in our portrayals of romance.
We, as a society, no longer see the toxicity in our collective curiosity. We do not realise when we transcend all ethical bounds in infringing on someone's personal space and privacy.
It is from this larger framework that we ought to understand the craze behind the Shah Rukh Khan selfie girl. Within hours of the picture coming out, "who is the girl in SRK's selfie" started trending on Twitter 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 received minimal censure despite the fact that the girl was made the focus of attention she didn't want—including blatantly lewd comments on social media. For all we know, she must have already received scores of creepy messages (for which the likelihood is quite high).
There's nothing wrong with admiring someone, but what is the ethical limit in manifesting this admiration? The conjunctive complicity of various institutions that normalise and legitimise stalking is why stalking has been invisibilised in our society. We, as a society, no longer see the toxicity in our collective curiosity. We do not realise 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.