The murder on Friday of a 19-year-old BCom student by a 26-year-old man who had reportedly been stalking her for weeks has rattled Chennai, and sparked another round of discussions on the safety of women in public spaces.

Alagesan, a sanitation worker, doused himself with petrol before accosting M Aswini outside her college in KK Nagar, asking her to set him on fire, media reports said. When she refused, he demanded that she stab him. When Aswini tried to run away, he chased her and slit her throat with a knife. Ashwini was taken to hospital but died of her injuries. Alagesan was caught by a crowd and beaten up before being handed over to the police.

The crime bears a striking resemblance to the murder in 2016 of 24-year-old engineer M Swathi by Ramkumar, who had been stalking her for months. Ramkumar had hacked Swathi to death in full public view at the Nungambakkam railway station.

A few weeks before she was murdered, Aswini had filed a police complaint against Alagesan, accusing him of gagging her, tying her hands and putting a thaali, or holy chain, around her neck and declaring them married. She told the police she had been friends with Alagesan for two years and had accepted his proposal of marriage but later broken it off with him. She said that he started stalking and harassing her after this.

At the time, Aswini’s mother requested the police not to file a first information report as she felt this might cause her daughter trouble and hamper her studies. The police left off Alagesan with a warning.

Aswini’s killing, like that of Swathi, has made headlines and set off intense discussions on stalking and other crimes against women across Tamil Nadu. But it also raises the question of whether discussions alone will help curb such crimes. Between the murders of Swathi and Aswini and all the cases in between, has anything changed at all?

Language of stalking

Of the many discussions after Swathi’s murder, one took the form of an online campaign, Calling Out Stalking, that spoke out against the alleged glorification of stalking in Tamil cinema and pop culture. “Cinema is taken way too seriously in Tamil Nadu and influences politics and everyday casual conversations,” said V Iswarya, a PhD student at the Madras Christian College who started the campaign. “It seems to have set an example that you can pester a woman into admitting that she loves you.”

Iswarya drafted a petition asking filmmakers not to depict stalking in such a manner and actors not to accept such roles. The petition received more than 3,000 signatures. “We were able to reach out to filmmakers through social media, some of whom actually pledged their support and spoke out against this,” said Iswarya.

In the past two years, the campaign has also sought to change the language used by the Tamil media while reporting gender violence. “Tamil newpapers and TV channels consistently use the word ‘love’ while reporting these incidents,” she said. “But the words that translate to jilted, spurned or rejected lover tend to provide validation for this kind of behaviour. All of this is being used by media who should insist on calling him only a stalker, murderer or harasser.”

Iswarya realised this may perhaps be because there was no Tamil word for stalking. So, she and a few others consulted Tamil scholars and came up with the word “vanthodardhal”, which translates to forcibly following someone.

“We are trying to change perception,” said Iswarya. “We need to make it more crime-centric and not centred on the feelings of the perpetrator.”

A demonstration after M Swathi's murder in 2016. (Credit: Vinita Govindarajan)

Victim blaming

Activists also pointed to an insensitive media.

Gender rights activist Archanaa Seker said that after Swathi’s murder, several media outlets had speculated on whether she was to blame in some way for Ramkumar’s actions. In the case of Aswini, a Tamil newspaper carried a headline that drew a parallel between her murder and the 2002 film Unnai Ninaithu starring actors Suriya and Laila. In the film, Suriya is depicted as a caring man who is deeply in love with Laila and helps her family financially. But she leaves him for a rich man.

“The media is supposed to be unbiased,” said Seker. “By comparing the movie with Aswini’s case, the media has been extremely biased. The movie has a deeply problematic story line. Comparing the movie to Aswini’s murder is almost like blaming her.”

Changing attitudes

According to criminal lawyer Geetha Ramaseshan, only a change in attitude can make a real difference. She said that criminal law can only react to a situation, as in the case of the gangrape and murder of a young woman in Delhi in 2012. The incident led to amendments to the country’s sexual violence laws. Stalking and acid attacks were introduced as crimes under this category.

Archanaa Seker said that Aswini’s name will join a long list of names that come up during discussions on gender violence. “The solutions discussed will always boil down to self-defence for women, more cameras in place, more streetlights and so on,” she said. “We are constantly talking about infrastructure with regard to safety, but until we begin to talk about mindsets for safer cultures, nothing is going to change.”