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India: In Conversation With: Psychologist Rajat Mitra

January 08, 2013
An interview with Dr. Rajat Mitra by Ms. Malavika Vyawahare published by the New York Times, forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission*

India: In Conversation With: Psychologist Rajat Mitra

Dr. Rajat Mitra, a clinical psychologist, is the director of the Swanchetan Society for Mental Health, a nongovernmental organization in India that provides counselling and support services to survivors of violence, abuse and trauma. He is one of the few people in India who has closely studied sex offenders to understand the motivation behind their attacks, interviewing hundreds of them in Tihar Jail in Delhi over several years.

You have conducted a study of people involved in sex crimes, what were the main findings?

I conducted a psychological study of inmates at Tihar Jail, Delhi, who were either under trial or had been convicted of sex crimes. It was a scientific study, done with their consent between 2000 and 2005. The participants were assured that their statements would not be held against them in a court of law.

I found the offenders to be a heterogeneous group, and the crimes themselves fall within a broad range - some brutalised their victims after sexually assaulting them, others did not brutalize them, some others were cases of both assault and homicide. It would be difficult to profile the rapists in some manner.

But there were certain features that could be seen as common to all these crimes, and these were the aspects of privacy and control. Take, for example, the recent case, where the rape happened in a bus, the group of men was in a surrounding that was familiar to them, and hence had a sense of security. Rapists also attempt to take total control of the victim, physical and psychological, through physical violations or threats or both.

When I did the study initially, it was very difficult to get them to talk about the act. They would not acknowledge that they had committed the crime. There was a widespread belief among the offenders that they were going to get away; they thought they would be able to circumvent the system. It was usually their third or fourth crime, and their confidence level that they would be able to get away was very high. Any behavioural psychologist would tell you that this does not come with the first crime.

There was also almost no sense of guilt or remorse. The general feeling even among the convicted was that they would still manage to get away. Many of them told me that they had appealed to the higher courts, or said they had been framed, or said they had not been careful enough.

How does a sex crime committed in a group differ from one committed by an individual?

I would say the instances of gang rape have increased in the past five to six years. When a group of men come together, say, for a celebration, their threshold would go down. A lot of these crimes were also committed under the influence of alcohol, which further reduces their discretionary powers. The sense of collective responsibility takes hold, which makes it possible for the individual to do things, which he may not ever do alone.

When they are in a group, they feel a sense of security. For example, if they get caught on the way, let's say by a policeman, they think they can always pay a bribe and get away. This is possible when the system is corrupt and there is no fear of the rule of law in the criminal mind.

The decision-making mechanism is also different in a group. There is always someone taking the leadership role and others following. There is usually someone in the group who resists the course of action suggested by the leader, but whose voice is suppressed. Again in the recent case, the reports suggest that the driver of the bus was the one who made the decision and the rest followed.

Unfortunately, there is very little awareness among the police force in India about the functioning and control of such elements. For example, in a city like Hong Kong, if a group of men are seen driving around in an inebriated state, or are seen on the road behaving in an inappropriate manner, a police vehicle would immediately start trailing them, and they would be made to take an alcohol test and be booked if they had already committed any minor offenses, which could be a step towards preventing a bigger crime. The police are on an active lookout to prevent such situations before they occur.

One of the reasons cited in the rise in the occurrence of these crimes is the empowerment of women, which leads to a backlash from the men. Would you agree?

I don't agree with people who say revenge against women, who are seen as more empowered, now can be seen as a valid reason. It is based on a very patriarchal reasoning, which absolves men of any responsibility.

It is also a subtle way of influencing the criminal justice system, by portraying the women to be somewhat responsible for the crime.

News reports also suggest that most rape victims know their attackers.

This understanding of the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator is misleading. How would you say that the woman knows the man? For example, if a man lives in the neighbourhood and the women is aware that he lives there, or if they have interacted on some occasions, would you say that they know each other? This is another way of making the crime seem to be of a social-familial nature, or to confine it to the limits of the community and not see a role for the criminal justice system in its redressal.

A female police officer recently said that the personal attitudes of the officers do not affect the objectivity of the investigation. Do you agree?

That is a ridiculous thing to say. If an investigator starts with the premise that the victim is at fault or that she is to be mistrusted, how can the investigation be objective? I haven't come across any police officer who has been trained in conducting interviews with rape victims. There is a way to do that, starting with expressing empathy with the victim and going through a scientific series of questions. The personal beliefs and attitude of the police officials do matter.

I remember at the end of the study I conducted at Tihar Jail, a senior police official came up to me and asked me: Rape main kya study karne wali cheez hai? (What is there to study about rape crimes?) The prevalent understanding is that it is a simple crime where a man grabbed a woman and raped her, when in fact rape is one of the most complex crimes, even more complex than homicide, I would say. In India, unlike in many other countries, there is no appreciation of the complex nature of the crime and the need for serious introspection about it.

Do you support calls for the death penalty for rapists?

I am a bit worried about the protests and the direction they are taking right now. Though I support them, I feel that asking for more severe punishment would not help if we were not ensuring the certainty of punishment. By doing this, on the contrary, we would be loading a criminal justice system, which is already falling apart.

I have testified in nearly 150 such cases in Delhi. I find that there is great impunity and very little fear of rule of law. Most of these types of crimes are preventable.

Does the "naming and shaming" method work?

I think that maintaining a database is a good idea, but the whole "name and shame" campaign may not work. It is an antiquated medieval belief, which leads to loss of objectivity. In fact, shaming may not work as a deterrent. It may do exactly the opposite.

I distinctly remember when the police superintendents attended the group meetings I conducted with the sex offenders in the jail. They would adopt a very moralizing approach to them, and pass statements, which are often heard in India, like: Sharam nahi aati? Ghar pe maa behen nahi hai kya? (Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Do you not have mothers and sisters at your home?) And I remember looking at the offenders themselves, and there would be a gleam in their eyes.

Which is why this demand for shaming scares me. It has not worked in any part of the world. What we really need is an overhauling of the criminal justice system.

About Dr. Mitra:

Dr. Mitra currently works at the AHRC in Hong Kong, training human rights defenders from across Asia to deal with threatening situations that arise during their work. India Ink spoke with him recently by telephone to learn more about the psychology of sex offenders in India. The original article could be read at
The AHRC wishes to thank the New York Times and Ms. Malavika Vyawahare for allowing the AHRC to reproduce this interview.

Read this statement online
# # #

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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