Photo Illustration by Bandeep Singh

Photo Illustration by Bandeep Singh

Maybe, just maybe, they died before pain or perception. Like soldiers in the heat of war, a leg blown off, shrapnel in the eye, intestines hanging out, but numb to pain. That silent prayer wafts heavenwards, as the nation grieves. Grisly remains of children are emerging every day from their dark resting places: Kathua, Surat, Etah, Balasore, Indore, Chatra. Smashed skulls, chewed lips, lacerated genitals, sticks and bottles forced inside the belly. About 20,000 children a year, 50 a day, two every hour- age seven months to 17 years -mangled, raped and murdered in a frenzy of blood, agony and that ultimate breach of trust: adult lust for innocence.

This is a story you may not want to read, but you must. Five months into 2018, the litany of brutal acts of rape, torture and murder carried out against children across the country seems unending. It is hard to envisage how adult men can rape infants and children, but the recent acts of extreme violence and exceptional brutality-too horrific to comprehend-have transfixed us. The conversation is getting louder-on the streets, in homes, at offices. The Supreme Court is taking suo motu cognisance of the gruesome cases. A darkening public mood pushed the central government to come out with an ordinance: death penalty for rape of girls aged 12 or less. But beyond the blame games and the excuses, the politics and the protests, there is a struggle to probe the deeper source of the problem: the mind of the child rapist.

EVEN AFTER KATHUA

This is the time for looking at monsters. On January 10, an eight-year-old girl from the pastoral Bakarwal tribe of Jammu was abducted, imprisoned in a temple, drugged, tortured, starved, given electric shocks and gang raped repeatedly for a week, before being murdered. The trial of the eight accused has started, but the public outrage has not put an end to the crime. On April 5, the body of an 11-year-old girl was found in Surat, Gujarat, with 86 injuries and foreign objects forced into her vagina. In Balasore, Odisha, children were assaulted on April 13 and 14. Between April 17 and 19, three children (all below 10) were brutally violated at weddings they were attending with parents: two at Etah in Uttar Pradesh, and one at Kabirdham, Chhattisgarh. On April 20 in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, CCTV images showed how a six-month-old was picked up while she was sleeping between her parents on the pavement by a 21-year-old man. The postmortem revealed rape, severe genital injury and death by head injury. The latest are two separate incidents from Chatra in Jharkhand on May 5-6, where two minors were assaulted, raped, doused with kerosene and then set on fire.

THE DARK UNDERBELLY

Across the country, doctors whose job it is to deal with child rape, the victims of such crimes as well as the perpetrators, they are all talking. And they have tales to tell. “The body of the little girl was floating inside a water tank. The rapist had dumped her there. I remember her eyes. It sends shivers down my spine even now. And I have been a psychologist for 35 years,” says Dr Rajat Mitra, clinical psychologist and founder-director of Swanchetan Society for Mental Health in Delhi. “She was sitting across me, a 10-year-old,” recalls Dr Jai Ranjan Ram, consultant psychiatrist with Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, Kolkata. He talks about a victim whose stepfather was raping her regularly and sharing her with his friends. “Even for a psychiatrist, it’s a harrowing experience to share the grief of such profound violence.”

They are concerned with the way India has emerged as the country with the world’s largest number of cases of child rape and sexual assault. “There might be more reporting of the cases, but the numbers are clearly rising,” says Mitra. The National Crime Records Bureau data shows huge spikes in child rape cases in the last 15 years: a 336 per cent leap between 2001 and 2011, followed by a 82 per cent rise between 2015 and 2016. There is clear indication that there has been a significant increase in the number of such cases, he maintains. While the most dangerous states for children have traditionally been the Hindi heartland, Assam, Odisha and Tamil Nadu have now entered the danger zone.

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ANGRY AND DEVIANT

Experts agree that child rape and sexual abuse reflect a society on a short fuse, just waiting for a spark. Ram worries about the rising “anger” he witnesses among people coming to his chamber: “We see a lot of patients these days whose main problem is that they use anger as a coping device in everyday life.” They invariably have histories of road rage and disturbing discord with neighbours. Anger chips away at their sense of stability, he explains. “In a violent and less reflective society, you tend to do things without thinking. And that’s a very slippery slope.” Anger, by the way, is a dark emotion that operates in every kind of rape, especially those characterised by physical brutality.

There’s more to the darkest secret of the criminal underbelly of child rape, feels Dr Shivaratna Lalit Vaya, a leading forensic psychologist from Gujarat who was part of the team that solved the 2006 case of serial murders of children in Nithari, Noida. “Such criminals usually remain at large, unidentified, in the shadows of society, find new victims and gaining confidence until the day they are caught,” Vaya points out. “Then you know him as a child rapist or child sexual offender.”

Consider this: at 3 pm on July 5, 2013, 20-something Prahlad Meena came to the house of Prabhu Lal and his wife Narangi. As neighbours in their village Bhatodiya of Rajasthan, the families were close and Meena was particularly trusted: he was Narangi’s ‘rakhi brother’. That day, he asked the eight-year-old daughter of Lal, “Where are your parents?” Busy playing with other children, she responded: “They are not at home, they have gone to town to buy wheat.” Meena went out, bought chocolates for the child, came back, caught hold of her hand and took her with him. The next morning, she was found in a field near the house-raped, mutilated and murdered. “This is not only betrayal of individual trust but destruction and devastation of social trust,” read the verdict of justices G.R. Moolchandani and G.K. Vyas of Jodhpur High Court in September 2016. “It is perversity in its enormity.”

MASK OF NORMALCY

To the experts, the difficult truth is that we all know the apparently “normal” men who commit such crimes. Mitra, who has seen a very large swathe of child rapists during his 14 years of work in Delhi’s Tihar prison, says, “They are like any other normal person: the friendly neighbour, the kindly shopkeeper, the endearing relative, cousin, teacher, coach.” And they belong to a wide spectrum of society, all sections and classes, although the law catches up with the poorer classes more. “I have seen successful local bigwigs as well as esteemed spiritual leaders.” Possibly the only thing that sets a child rapist apart is that most of them are very charming with children, he says.

They have a way of gaining a child’s trust and familiarising themselves with them. They can relate to children easily and talk to them like equals: “This is not the conventional parental affection for a child, mind you.” They shower the child with attention, treats, toys or trips to places that children enjoy. They hug and pat, wrestle, tickle, play physical games and cuddle their victims. They seek alone-time with the child, entice them away from others on some pretext or the other, ask them to keep a secret, photograph them enthusiastically. “Everything starts harmlessly, but increasingly becomes sexual in content until they decide to strike,” explains Mitra.

THE CLASSIC PROFILE

The very nature of child rape and abuse is that you are targeting people who are vulnerable, weak and defenceless. Hence, the exercise of power and domination are intrinsic to the psyche of the child rapist. However, experts caution that there is no single psychological profile that explains every child rapist. “There is a huge variety among the men jailed for it,” says Dr Manju Mehta, clinical psychologist and former head of child and adolescent psychology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi. The classic profile of child rapists are men who were exposed to violence growing up, brought up with anger, negativity, beatings and rejections. For them, sexual gratification is not the core issue, it’s hostility, anger and control. They look for a sex object which is defenceless, so they can do what they want in terms of violence and domination. The victim ceases to be a “person” and becomes an ‘object’ and nothing more. The offenders often knock a child unconscious, or kill, before having sex with them. Research suggests that violence, more than sexual gratification, is what drives a child rapist’s behaviour. Many are victims of childhood sexual abuse. The more men are abused as children, the more likely they are to rape as adults; although not everyone who has been abused as a child becomes a potential rapist.

Of the various types of child rapists, the “opportunist” type-for whom rapes are part of a larger pattern of impulsive crimes-gets away with it the most. They also display no anger, don’t use unnecessary force, except in response to the victim’s resistance. There are also those preoccupied with sexual fantasies, which they try to act out in the rape. Far more violent are those classified as the ‘vindictive’ type-men who are physically harmful to their victims as well as those driven by anger at the world. These individuals usually have a long history of violent crimes and inflict the most physical damage on their victims.

Mehta recalls Surinder Koli of the Nithari case, now serving life-term for murdering 18 children, as a sadist, who lacked social skills to develop relationships with adults and had persistent preoccupations about sex with children. For sadists, the victim’s fear is the sexual stimulus.

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In her 2011 study of child rape convicts (Sexual Abuse of Children: A Sociological Study in Delhi Metropolis), criminologist Hunny Matiyani interviewed 100 convicts, 38 per cent of whom claimed to have planned the crime beforehand. Out of them, most-53 per cent-said that they did it to satisfy sexual desires, 40 per cent said their motive was revenge, about 5 per cent said it was money and the rest (3 per cent) attributed their crimes to a ‘fascination’ with the victim’s beauty. But 62 per cent of the convicts said they had not planned the act. Out of them, 27 per cent apparently claimed an uncontrollable sexual urge when they found the victim alone, 21 per cent claimed the victim seduced them, 15 per cent cited neighbourhood enmity, 13 per cent said the rape happened because the victim was living with them and 6 per cent said it was because they were drunk. Why choose a child? About 34 per cent said the victim was a soft target because of her age and availability, and 15 per cent said it was because a child could be dealt with easily (threat and coercion).

Cases of child rape and assault are usually brutal, says Mitra: “They are also the most difficult to solve. There are usually no witnesses and the victim often succumbs to injuries. Unlike homicide, the crime scene is the child’s body, from which the crime and the criminal will have to be investigated. We don’t have that level of forensic professional excellence in this country.” To Vaya, child rape and assault becomes inherently brutal because of the very different mindset of the perpetrators. “When they start doing it, they don’t think it’s brutal,” she says, “but when the victim is not in a position to accept the way she is being handled, and puts up resistance in whichever way she can, the offender starts losing control over the victim. They become more and more aggressive because they can’t have their gratification. And they end up silencing the victim.” For many child rapists and abusers, the disgust arises after they commit the crime. “Not remorse, not guilt, just disgust at something so anti-nature, in a Nietzschean sense of being harmful to life, that they kill the victim-the object of the disgust,” explains Mitra.

ALL IN THE BRAIN

With child sex abuse (CSA) scandals involving the Catholic Church around the world and the trials of celebrity offenders, there has been heightened interest in research on mapping the psychological forces that drive child rape and sexual violence. The new wave of empirical studies is replacing the somewhat spotty earlier picture based largely on anecdotal reports. The new research suggests there is no single profile, rather many kinds of child rapists. That violence and sexuality are linked in differing degrees in each.

Since 2000, scientists armed with functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging techniques, together with neuropsychological studies, have shown that two groups can be identified as sexual offenders against children: about 50 per cent display a sexual preference disorder, namely paedophilia (for prepubescent minors) and/or hebephilia (for pubescent minors), but not every paedophilic individual actually abuses children. Mitra says, “These people hide behind a cloak of normality, relate very well to children, try to work around them, are intelligent, manipulative and control their victims through mental duress and threats.” New research with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) shows that their brains are wired differently, with malfunction in the “nurturing” area of the male brain (such as the left anterior insula cortex, which gets activated when mothers look at their children).

The other 50 per cent of child rapists do so without any sexual attraction to children. As Vaya points out, “These people lack the necessary social skills to develop and maintain emotional and sexual relationships with adults and use children as a kind of replacement to gratify, what Freud called, their inner identity, or primitive biological needs.” These people are also most likely to engage in repeated law-breaking, lying, violating rights of others, impulsiveness, aggression, lack of guilt over hurting others, and an inability to feel empathy for others, she says. Aggression and violence is ‘hardwired’ in their brain often due to biological, hormonal or genetic factors and by their environment. Say, harsh, callous parenting, exposure to domestic violence or experience of violence in the community, explains Vaya. Data provided by the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) shows that rape committed by minors have seen a 23 per cent rise between 2016 and 2015.

According to neurobiologist Sumantra Chattarji, director of the Centre for Brain Development and Repair at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, the human brain has an amazing capacity to form new neural connections and change throughout life, called neuroplasticity. The brain remains incredibly plastic up to age 15-16, a reason why adolescents can learn new things better than adults. “But just as it allows young people to learn fast, it can also get negatively rewired by stress, bad experiences, risky behaviour, poor choice of friends, negligent upbringing, emotional neglect, absence of support system and constant exposure to violence,” he says, leading juveniles into a life of crime. The DCPCR study shows that more than 70 per cent of minors charged with rape spent little quality time with their parents.

“A history of abuse gets hardwired into adolescent brains,” adds Dr Ram. They grow up lonely, callous, unemotional. “And they can’t step outside of themselves and enter the internal world of others,” he adds. Absence of empathy is a hallmark of people who prey on children. In the 1970s, psychologist Lenore Walker developed the ‘Cycle of Abuse’ theory in violent relationships: a specific pattern that repeated itself over and over again, no matter how many times the abuser promised to change or stop. Many of the child rapists may have experienced abuse and assault as children and got trapped in that cycle themselves, points out Ram. “An important caveat is, not everyone who has been abused goes on to abuse others.” In a research paper published in Neuron in 2017, Stanford scientists have shown that family environment plays a decisive role when it comes to sexual aggression. Positive upbringing and socialisation can override baser instincts.

LIFE OR DEATH?

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On August 14, 2004, at Alipore Central jail in Kolkata, when hangman Nata Mullick pulled the lever on Dhananjoy Chatterjee, 39, condemned for the rape and murder of a minor, it touched off a tumult of debate. The last words of the 55th man to be executed in India were, “I am innocent.” That’s what he had steadfastly maintained for 14 long years in jail, claiming justice had not been served because he was poor, unable to fight his case up to the Supreme Court. Nearly 14 years later, it’s believed by many that the case indeed rested on inconclusive circumstantial evidence and dodgy eyewitnesses. Without tissue culture, rape was not confirmed; and the victim was an 18-year-old and not a minor, as claimed.

“Did you carry out any study, any scientific assessment that death penalty is a deterrent to rape? Have you thought of the consequences to the victim?” That’s what the Delhi High Court bench of Chief Justice (acting) Gita Mittal and Justice C. Hari Shankar asked the Centre on April 23, on the dangers of irreversible punishments, especially in child rape and assault.

NCRB data shows that Dhananjay Chatterjee’s execution did not have a deterrent effect on child rape cases. There were 4,026 cases of child rape in 2005 as compared to 3,542 in 2004, accounting for an increase of 13.7 per cent.

Research shows that sentencing outcomes of child rapists are as complicated as the crime they commit. Like the crime, the punishment too depends to a large extent on the characteristics of the offender, according to an eight-year study by American criminal justice experts Steven Patrick and Robert Marsh. For instance, offenders who prey on younger victims or have more criminal charges or belong to higher income groups usually receive a longer sentence. The same is true of those with more victims and greater age difference. Offenders who commit forced rape, especially of victims under 12, repeat offenders, and certain minority groups are more likely to receive maximum sentences. Offenders close to the victim receive shorter sentences. According to former Delhi High Court Chief Justice A.P. Shah, globally 94.6 per cent of child rapists are known to the victims-a reason why many of the victims do not report or testify against them.

In the US, where large numbers of offenders are incarcerated for long stretches, research shows that those labelled for life through offender registration programmes are at greater risk of recidivism (tendency to reoffend). Meanwhile, treatment of child sex offenders has historically been low. Research from the Australian Institute of Criminology shows that in theory the fear of swift, certain and serious punishment by the justice system deters the abuse before it happens. But across the world, who gets punished (even executed), who does not, what decides their fate and how is based on an overly stereotyped characterisation of the offender. For instance, that sexual abusers are exclusively adult men who are paedophiles, who prey on children they encounter in a public environment, and are generally resistant to treatment, deterrence or rehabilitation, and thus, highly likely to offend again. In fact, the child rapist and sex offender population is much more diverse, most are probably never caught, not more than 50 per cent are paedophiles and about a third of offenders are juveniles themselves.

Many psychologists and activists have advocated the counselling and treatment of sex offenders, both to increase skills for behavioural self-regulation and to help resolve problems that may underlie the offences. Intensive family intervention and cognitive behavioural therapy have been found to be particularly useful for juvenile offenders.

WHEELS OF JUSTICE

Meanwhile, the little girl from Kathua, whose terrible fate ignited the spark for change, has now become the hottest item on child porn websites-mutilated once again by photoshop. Silenced forever, she can no longer feel the pain.

But as the case moves from the dark forests of Kathua-Samba to the harsh glare of the courts of justice, the key question the investigators, the prosecution and the judges will ask is: what went on inside the mind of her rapists? The accused have all pleaded “not guilty”: retired revenue officer and prime accused Sanji Ram claims in his affidavit to the Supreme Court that he was “like a grandfather” to her. His son Vishal Jangotra says he was busy writing exams in Meerut on that day (despite CCTV evidence to the contrary). Shubam Sangra, Sanji Ram’s juvenile nephew, contends that he took care of the victim, even treated her with Milky Way chocolates.

The wheels of justice are turning. At its heart is the age- old maxim: Fiat justitia, ruat caelum. Let justice be done, even if the heavens fall.

(culled from India Today)