Home / Mint-lounge / Opinion /  Lounge Opinion: Why it’s dangerous to de-humanize the men who rape

India woke up on Monday morning to find out that all five of the Mumbai rape suspects have been arrested and are behind bars. What’s more, the nation can breathe easy knowing that it only took “65 hours" to “nab" each of the villains. Now let’s see how well our “stringent new legislation" and “fast-track courts" work to bring these evil barbarians to justice, while we discuss whether Mumbai will have to cede its safest city credentials to Bangalore. That, at least, was the general tone of the news coverage in The Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Indian Express.

By Monday, after the attacked photojournalist’s family had made a public request not to be hounded by the media, and the media had duly reported that request, a few papers attempted to sketch out the characters of the men—or demons—who had been captured “on the run".

What did we learn about the rapists this weekend? We learned that they were dirt poor, men of the streets, “infamous criminals", drunkards, drug users, petty thieves. Some had no families, one was found to be lying to his family, one—the same man whose “days began at night"—was a “porn addict". Mostly we learned that we needn’t consider their individual situations too much, but that rather their identities should be determined by their fates. Was one man a juvenile? Would he serve less time? Were two? Or were the families just lying? Let’s reduce the age of responsibility from 18 to 16, came one suggestion from the National Commission for Women. They should be treated like adults. By which she meant they should be treated like rapists.

But we have had difficulty in articulating who exactly we mean by rapists in this country over the last year or so. Despite the fact that we know most rapists (97%) are known to their victims, we are much more comfortable with the idea of a deadly, prowling bogeyman. The pictures that are used in newspapers to illustrate rape stories are the best evidence of our confusion. In the absence of shots of the victims of rape, and with the real suspects’ heads usually covered by bags, newspapers get their illustrators on the job and produce identikit versions of the images you see with this article. The woman, aghast, her face illuminated by horror. The rapist… well the rapist is usually represented by a shadow, or a grasping hand, or a silhouette with a demon’s red eyes or a devil’s horns.

It’s strange that while the girl is the victim of endless press attention—“Who is she?" we want to know, “What does she feel like now?" “Is her family ashamed?" “Is she eating normal food?" “Has she laughed yet?" “Did anyone see her laugh?"—we aren’t really interested in the rapists. We didn’t talk about it for long when one of the men accused of the Delhi rape hung himself, or was hanged, in his prison cell. We didn’t ask many questions at all. It’s best that they should die, we say. Kill them, or cut off their penises, or let them rot in jail.

At times like these, when national shame is only superseded by national anger, everybody wants to claim the victim as her own. The Delhi gang-rape victim became a national heroine; she represented Everywoman. On the other hand, no one wants to admit that the men who commit these crimes come from among our own ranks, are products of our society, and could have been one of our own relations, husbands, brothers, sons. The media coverage mirrors this reluctance: “The 22-year old journalist claimed Kasim had raped her twice. But to his mother he was just doing odd jobs," marvelled the Hindustan Times, in a pull-quote, as though the convergence of those two realities was inconceivable.

We all fall for these stereotypes. The business of dehumanizing villains is an old one. The problem with this attitude, however, is that it overlooks the fact that the young men who did this horrific thing are citizens of this country too, although in our collective anger and shame it is much easier to ignore that, to paint them as monsters, evil to the core, or outcasts. Like other kinds of terrorists, it’s hardest to imagine that they could be home-grown.

So. Here are some things we know from The Indian Express’ coverage on Monday, the paper devoted a column to explaining the histories of the accused.

We know that one rapist, who the paper calls “juvenile accused", in inverted commas, apparently has a birth certificate to prove he is 16. But the police don’t believe his grandmother’s claim.

We know that the 18-year-old suspect, Vijay Jadhav, was “addicted to porn". We know this, presumably, because he was arrested while watching a pornographic film at a friend’s video parlour in Dagdi Chawl. The Times of India went further and said he was on his third dirty movie when he was arrested. Hindustan Times was more circumspect and described the film as a B movie. The Sunday Express added the prurient detail that Jadhav was “reportedly wearing the same jeans and shirt as at the time of the incident." He hadn’t even washed. Or maybe he just didn’t have any other clothes.

Of Mohammed Qasim Sheikh, who is either 18 or 21 or 17 years old, Hindustan Times tells us that he “has a criminal history and spent time at a juvenile home" and he lived in the slums. So did 27-year old Salim Ansari, and both were petty thieves and did “odd jobs".

We get a little more insight into the life of the 23-year-old accused, Siraj Rehman Khan. “In the Dhobi Ghat area," The Indian Express story says, “Siraj is infamous as a criminal who slept every night in the open."

So we know he slept rough. We also know why. Locals claim that, “Khan’s family last lived there more than a decade ago" in a house that was “very bare and built of bamboos. After Siraj’s father died, his mother married another man and they moved to Mumbra." Her three sons stayed behind in Mumbai. Khan would have been 13 then, if these facts are true, the youngest of those who stayed behind. One sibling, Mardawa, died age 25 “of a prolonged tuberculosis infection last year" and all three were involved in thievery at Mahalaxmi railway station and have cases registered against them, the story says.

It’s possible that this state of affairs might have something to do with the fact that Khan would “only surface at night", as the reporter tells us forbiddingly, and “frequented bars in Kamathipura". The story then quotes a 58-year old resident called Jayshree, who claimed to have known the brothers since they were toddlers: “and they were always involved in trouble. As they grew up, they began to visit Shakti Mills daily and consumed all kinds of drugs apart from alcohol. They spent hours there and made it their hideout."

No aspect of his past excuses the horrendous crime that Siraj has allegedly committed, and nothing he can do in his future will return to the girl who he raped what she has lost, but that is not a reason to turn the poverty and squalor that all the young men have lived with since childhood into a B-movie script explaining their actions. Siraj and his brothers and many, many more men and women like them, grew up in a world harsher than most of us can imagine. But it’s easy (and it panders to the prurience of the reader) for us to paint them as sex addicts, whose “days began at night", whatever that means.

To do this is more than lazy and reactionary; it is really dangerous. It’s dangerous because we will not inculcate any meaningful change, especially the “mentality-shift" that everyone keeps calling for, without also acknowledging that the problems of education and poverty and ignorance that India faces are inseparable from its problems with violent crime.

Equally the “sensitization" argument begins to fall apart when you apply it to the accused: How do you begin to “sensitize" a boy who has been abandoned as a child, grown up in abject poverty, been told all his life he will never amount to anything, got hooked on drugs and drink, and whose sibling has died “after a prolonged tuberculosis infection". Conversely, if we aren’t even going to admit that rapists are people, but instead fall back on a lexicon of dramatic dastardliness, then how do you sensitize a shadow?

“But they mustn’t get away with it," we shriek, “They mustn’t be allowed to get away with it." These boys have not gotten away with anything; this may be the first time they have been caught raping (it is now reported they have committed four other rapes in the past) but we are kidding ourselves if we think they have lived their lives with impunity.

We can never abolish rape entirely, it is too insidious a crime, too easy to perform and too hard to prove, but we will never even begin to tackle the problem if we persist in the fantasy that all rapists are demons from some netherworld the rest of us can’t, and shouldn’t try to, imagine.

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