In this blog post, Srishti Khindaria, a student of Amity Law School, Delhi, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, looks at the legal provisions provided to victims of sexual harassment via modes of communication and what action can be taken against those who commit such offenses.
Stalking or sexually harassing through means of communication is on the rise now and nearly everyone- especially girls- have faced this problem at least once, if not more. Such instances could be missed calls in the middle of the night, or lewd messages/emails or even sending inappropriate pictures or asking for sexual favors.Such acts lead to severe mental discomfort and hamper the everyday lives of the victims. These calls are used not only as a tool for eve-teasing women but may also by extortionists and for blackmailing. Such incidents are ignored by many if they happen just once but if these are repeated and if your stalker repeatedly makes such calls at frequent intervals and refuses to identify himself then action must be taken.
According to The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB), such crimes are increasing rapidly. From 2013 to 2014 there has been a 63.7% rise in just cyber offenses and during this period the category of “transmission of obscene content in electronic form” has grown even more with a 104.2% increase.
Legal Provisions and Rights Given To Victims of Such Crimes
The term sexual harassment has been defined under Section 354A of The Indian Penal Code, 1860 as – an unwelcome sexually determined behavior (whether directly or by implication) as:
a) Physical contact and advances;
b)A demand or request for sexual favors;
c)Sexually colored remarks;
e)Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 suggested that Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code provide a more comprehensive definition of sexual harassment.
Before 2015 there was Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which could have been of substantial help to anyone who was intimated or harassed online. This section provided punishment for sending offensive messages through means of communication. These messages can be transmitted, created or received by a computer system, resource or device and could be attachments in the form of text, audio, video, images or any other electronic record. It specifically dealt with messages which were grossly offensive or menacing, proffered false information intending to cause annoyance, inconvenience, insult, etc. or intended to deceive the addressee about the message’s origin. However, owing to a lot of flaws in this section because of which it infringed upon the fundamental rights granted by the constitution, the section was struck down by the Honorable Supreme Court of India in the case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India.
Section 66A of the IT Act dealt only with generic category i.e. of “offensive messages” there are other sections which have been additionally included to address specifically acts such as stalking, obscenity, sexually explicit acts, etc. with heavier punishments than section 66A carried. The Indian Penal Code, 1860 contains various provisions that address the issue of crimes of verbal abuse and the harassment of women. Some of these are as follows:
Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860
Section 509 of the IPC lays down that if anyone with an intention to insult the modesty of a woman utters any word, makes any sound or gesture or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or such gesture or object shall be seen by the woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of the woman, they shall be punished with simple imprisonment which may extend up to a term of 1 year, or a fine, or both.”
This section is referred to as the eve-teasing section, and its main objective is to protect the chastity and modesty of a woman. Though initially designed to address the issue of eve-teasing or street-sexual harassment, this section has also been applied to the cyber space to curb online stalking and harassment. In 2001, a teenage boy in 11th grade was convicted under section 509 for making vulgar remarks about his female classmates on a website known as amazing.com.
Also, as per the Justice Verma Committee Report, which was set up for amendments in Criminal Law, has suggested that certain amendments must be brought about in section 509. The committee suggested that use of words, gestures or acts that create a threat of an unwelcome sexual act or are of sexual nature should be termed as sexual assault and be punishable by one year imprisonment, fine or both.This is a step further as the creation of threat is also seen as a crime.
Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code, 1860
Section 354D pertains to stalking specifically, including crimes that involve monitoring the electronic communication of a woman and also deals with cases where any man attempts to contact a woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by the woman.
Section 507 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860
This section deals with criminal intimidation by anonymous communication. This is another provision that can be used by a woman facing harassment and threats online, given the fact that the most serious form of verbal harassment faced by women is rape threats.
In present times the notion of anonymous communication comes into significant play given the fluidity of identities in the virtual space which prevents them from knowing the true identity of their harassers. Any person who is convicted of committing the offense of stalking shall be on first conviction punished with imprisonment which may extend up to three years and on second or subsequent conviction with a term of up to five years and shall also be liable to pay fine.
Section 67 of the Information Technology Act
Under section 67 of the Information Technology Act, publication or transmission of obscene material in electronic form is a punishable act. On first conviction, the offender may be imprisoned for a term of two to three years and a fine of up to five lakh rupees and in the event of second or subsequent conviction with imprisonment for a term of five years and a fine up to ten lakh rupees.This section gives a wider scope to the law mentioned under Section 507 of the Indian Penal Code as it deals with all aspects of electronic communication.
Precautions and Action That Can Be Taken Against Such Offenders
The very first step for any woman who receives questionable phone calls or text messages is to block such numbers using mobile applications such as Truecaller or Call Blacklist, which can be easily be downloaded from mobile app stores. But if the offender still continues to call/message through another number then action can be taken up which will ensure that an investigation is imitated, and the offender can be punished. Also, record the calls- if possible, using a call recording app if your phone does not have an inbuilt provision- and keep a screenshot of the messages, to use as evidence later.
Such instances can also be reported to the Women’s Helpline Number at 1091. UP Police has also launched a special “Women Power Line” which can be reached at 1090 which has till date dealt with 5,58,188 complaints. For further action, you may approach the nearest police station to file an FIR as it is only after an FIR has been filed that further investigation can be undertaken.
A complaint with National Commission for Women: Under section 10 of the NCW Act, the Complaints and Investigation Cell of the commission processes oral or written complaints from women who have faced any violation of their rights. And victims of cyber-crime too can approach the commission with their complaints.
Some states also have dedicated cyber cells and of the 1,203 cases, there have been arrests in over 730 of them at a 61% conviction rate.  It has been seen that victims of abusive/threating phone calls prefer using helplines to seek help for the fear of embarrassment and rejection from family and members of the society and do not wish to step into a police station to lodge complaints.
The 24-hour helpline in Chennai, operated by three women cops receives at least 150 calls a day, and many of these callers complain of vulgar, abusive calls from strangers or extortion threats from ex-lovers especially in the middle of the night.
However, The Women’s Helpline, in most cases does not entertain complaints and merely advises the victim to visit the nearest police station or takes action too late. According to a Times of India Report, a woman approached the helpline with a complaint against a man who kept on terrorizing her via calls by making lewd remarks. However, the police failed to react in time which resulted in further harassment.
In another incident- when the helpline had just been launched- when a call was made to it about a girl being harassed by a few youths they were assured that help would reach the spot in 10 minutes but even after an hour nobody turned up, and a reporter was told by a policeman in the area that “Don’t call the helpline; call 100 instead.”
It is clear that there are certain laws and special state initiatives which are available to the victim. However, their implementation is fragile. But as responsible citizens, it is essential that we are aware of our rights because once an official recognizes that you are well versed with your rights, they are more likely to fulfill their responsibilities effectively.
Lastly, always remember that such offenders count on the silence of their victims to get away with their heinous crimes, so do not be ashamed or afraid. They are the ones guilty of committing a heinous act and you’re completely innocent. So do not be afraid be speak up and do seek help, especially from your family and friends.
WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.167 OF 2012
 Complaints can be directly filed at- http://ncw.nic.in/onlinecomplaintsv2/frmPubRegistration.aspx
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