Rape and the rapist: Why Indian academics are studying offenders' perspectives

In 2015, when Leslee Udwin's documentary — India's Daughter, on the 16 December 2012 gang-rape in Delhi of Jyoti Singh Pandey — released, it found itself at the centre of a storm. The government of India banned the BBC documentary. At the same time, independent filmmaker Anjali Bhushan alleged that Udwin had not only cheated her Indian collaborators, but also that the interview with one of the rapists (Mukesh Singh; which formed a crucial part of the documentary) had been conducted falsely. Bhushan said Udwin had 'coached' Singh on what responses to give.

The Mukesh Singh interview was shocking in the brutality it laid bare. And in being used as a device to sensationalise an already gruesome crime, it was also a disservice to academics who were just beginning to look at rape — from the offenders' perspective.

Madhumita Pandey, a doctoral researcher in criminology at Anglia Ruskin University, for instance, had interviewed over 100 rape convicts at Delhi's Tihar Jail, to study the roots of violence against women and children. Among the first studies (according to Pandey) to examine the perspectives of convicted rapists in India, its aim was "to understand the attitudes these men have towards their victims and how this thinking contributes to the endemic sexual violence that women experience in the country".

An activist of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) holds a poster during a protest against the recent gang-rape of a woman in a moving car, according to local media, in Kolkata, India May 31, 2016. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri - D1AETHEUJNAA

An activist protest against the May 2016 gang-rape of a woman in Kolkata. REUTERS

A column recently written by Pandey, encapsulating some of her findings, has since gone viral, being published on numerous websites. She was also interviewed about her work by the Washington Post, and explained how she sought out the victim (a five-year-old girl) of one of the rapists she had spoken with in the course of her study. The convict himself was a 23-year-old who had not finished primary school and worked as a cleaner in a temple.

Pandey wrote: "When I asked him to elaborate on how she 'provoked' him, he said, 'she was touching me inappropriately so I thought I’ll teach her a lesson'. He added: 'Her mother is also like this, she too has a questionable character.' Victim blaming is a commonly found phenomenon in the narratives of sex offenders and this case was not any different."

Pandey's study has garnered attention because it offers a perspective we are not used to, when reading about rape — a crime that affected 34,651 women in India in 2015, as per an NCRB report. While she declined to be interviewed by Firstpost, Pandey did tell us that there is greater academic interest in studying rape from the offenders' perspective in India. She also directed us to Prof K Jaishankar, president, South Asian Society of Criminology and Victimology (SASCV) and his student at Raksha Shakti University, doctoral research fellow Sarthak Rathod, who are undertaking similar studies in Gujarat. Rathod, for instance, interviewed 50 rape offenders at the Sabarmati Central Prison for his thesis, and his aim was "to learn the perspective of convicted rapists in order to know the factors that cause rape crimes".

Prof Jaishankar told us that academic understanding of rape in India was not very comprehensive, owing to the lack of criminology departments in many universities here.

"Notably, even the foremost university of the country — Jawaharlal Nehru University, whose students were the first to initiate a protest in the December 2012 gang-rape case — has no criminology department. Even though some gender studies centres do research on rape, it is not holistic," Prof Jaishankar pointed out.

Then there was the issue of perspective itself. Most rape studies follow the 'victimological perspective' or a legal rather than sociological standpoint.

"Rape as a crime is more seen from legal perspective (with less criminological understanding) and sociology departments give secondary importance to crime per se. Mostly, criminologists are now looking at rape from victimological perspectives and not from offender perspectives. This is due to the fact that the prison systems are somewhat insular in allowing researchers inside the prisons for data collection on rape offenders," Prof Jaishankar said.

Why is it so important to get the offenders' perspective?

"The victimological understanding of rape will be always different from that of the offender perspective as it will be concerned with the trauma/rights of the victims, secondary victimisation of rape victims by the criminal justice system, and compensation and justice to rape victims. (While) victimological research also brings in hidden rape crimes that are not reported to the police due to fear of stigma and secondary victimisation, paradigms which are victim-driven may not be providing a comprehensive understanding of rape. There needs to a combination of criminology, sociology, victimology, psychology and legal studies to understand rape offence and victimisation. I feel that this understanding is emerging. In the future, more research will happen in this area, when prisons will be more open for criminologists to research rape and other crimes," Prof Jaishankar noted.

Some of the areas pertaining to rape that have received recent attention from Indian academics include, "the victim-offender relationship, victim blaming, victim precipitation, victim-offender mediation (even though compounding is not possible in rape cases, there are some judgments), Restorative justice, Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Positive Criminology/Victimology," Prof Jaishankar told Firstpost.

Prof Jaishankar's student, Sarthak Rathod, told us that the public/expert responses to the 16 December 2012 gang-rape were what got him interested in studying "the other side of a heinous crime".

He recalls being struck by how the focus was on punitive measures such as the demands for changing the Juvenile Justice Act, fast track courts, stricter punishments for rapists, in addition to improving assistance offered to rape victims. As a criminology student, Rathod felt that studying the rapists themselves, was not being considered — which would mean a gap in our understanding of the crime. Pursuing his PhD under Prof Jaishankar, Rathod decided to look at both offender and victim perspectives when studying rape as a crime.

As he interviewed rape convicts at Sabarmati Central Prison for his pilot study, Rathod did glean a number of insights.

He found that sometimes, instances of elopement had been converted into rape cases. Some of his interviewees had also been convicted for statutory rape (consensual sex with a minor). "Notably, most of the offenders did not know the definition of 'rape', or that having sex with a minor is a crime," said Rathod.

Rathod found that most of the respondents in his study were unhappy with the criminal justice system (where they felt the police and courts had not played their roles) but felt the prison department functioned efficiently. He also recounted for us, one of his case studies:

'Participant 33' had been pursuing a classmate at college and raped her when she spurned his attentions. He didn't flee the crime scene, and was apprehended by the police and sentenced to seven years in prison. On his release, the man tracked down the victim (now living in a different district in Gujarat with her husband and in-laws) and raped her again. This time as well, he didn't flee, was caught, and returned to jail for seven years. The chain of events was repeated a third time, and when Rathod met the man (who was then halfway through his third jail sentence), the latter declared that he would find the woman again. "Sir, get me that girl or hang me till death," Rathod recorded the man as saying.

"I realised that he (Participant 33) is not a normal human being," Rathod told Firstpost. "I felt like this man could have been rehabilitated if he would have got help at an early stage or after his first offence. Now there is little hope of him becoming a non-violent and law-abiding citizen. This is where we can see the failure of our system."

Rathod — aware of the sensitive nature of his study — was meticulous in following ethical guidelines and a rigorous academic approach. "We sought informed consent; the participants were made to understand that this is a criminological study of rape, from the perspective of rape offenders, and that their participation is voluntary. They could withdraw from or discontinue the interview any time, and if they felt uncomfortable in any way they could decline to answer questions. Their identities too would never be disclosed," Rathod said.

Prof Jaishankar told us that there were certain aspects of the prevalence of rape as a crime that were specific to the Indian context.

"Hidden and unreported cases of rape are highly prevalent in our country. Due to various issues such as social stigma, media reporting, and secondary victimisation at the hands of criminal justice agencies, most of the rape cases are not reported. Specifically, child rape is mostly not reported if it the perpetrator is a close relative. So we are not clear on the statistics of rape offences in India," he pointed out. "A study by Anita Raj and Lotus McDougal (2014) in the Lancet found only '8·5 percent prevalence of sexual violence in the country, among the lowest in the world... estimated to affect 27·5 million women in India' and it should be noted that 'only 1 percent of victims of sexual violence report the crime to the police'. Also, in India marital rape is not a crime and most rapes occur within the neighbourhood. As per the NCRB 2013 report, most rape offences are done by persons who are known to the victim."

"India is traditionally patriarchal and many individuals take rape offenses lightly," Prof Jaishankar concluded. "Victim blaming is higher in rape cases. Non-reporting of rape offenses adds much to this issue. Holistic research, from both victim and offender perspectives, may give a better global picture of rape and how it affects Indian society."


Published Date: Sep 17, 2017 03:14 pm | Updated Date: Sep 20, 2017 11:02 am


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