#deathforchildrapists : A Former Believer’s Apologia by Tara Kaushal

April 2018: This is the viral open letter I wrote to those rejoicing about the amendment to POCSO that proposes the capital punishment for rapists of children under 12.


Dear everyone celebrating #deathforchildrapists ,

I know your heart is in the right place. This POCSO amendment is the best news you’ve heard all year! Finally someone’s doing something! Something’s gotta give! These rapes have got to stop! Our kids need to feel safe again! Three cheers!

I feel you. A few years ago, fresh out of college, with whatever little time I’d invested in thinking about it, I would’ve agreed with you. I remember chatting with friends about the many arguments pro the death penalty—why should evil people live on on taxpayers’ money; get it over with; long prison sentences don’t compensate for some crimes; it serves as a deterrent; etc. I believed in retributive justice, same as you. It feels great, an outlet for collective anger and adrenalin, like a popped pimple, phew! But then, I started studying about it.

Of course, there are ethical and moral arguments against the death penalty, but let’s talk about whether it plays a constructive role in society at all.

The biggest defence one hears is that it acts as a deterrent—people will not commit crime for fear of death. “There is not the slightest credible statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the rate of homicide,” writes John J Donohue III, PhD, a law professor at Stanford University. Social scientists across the world, the UN, Amnesty International, all agree.

In fact, it is proven that it is not the extent of punishment for crime but the surety of receiving said punishment that prevents crime. The Indian culture of victim silence coupled with our laughable law enforcement allows perpetrators of sexual violence to operate with impunity. One of the rapists I studied, with no police complaints against him for the 20-plus rapes he confessed to, told me to go ahead and use his real name. “Mujhe kya hona hai?” What will ever happen to me, he asked.

Further in the Captain Obvious vein, is the fact that the Indian police is incompetent at best, actively deceitful and corrupt at worst. Let’s take the cases of the murders of Aarushi Talwar and Pradyuman Thakur of Ryan International School. These are not isolated cases—there are many unpublicised instances where the police has fabricated and fictionalised cases against scapegoats. Us CSI-watching people don’t know the half of it. (And even countries with more sophisticated detection and enforcement systems than ours are admitting to retrospective mistakes.)

The police’s negligence and corruption weighs most heavily on those least able to withstand it. It is the disempowered—men from lower castes, minority religions, poverty and illiteracy—that receive a disproportionate number of death sentences. Without legal representation, the penalty is applied with arbitrariness and after long delays.

Death to the innocent is an irrevocable mistake. The desire for closure through death, for retribution, for blood that the victims’ families are baying for are understandable but barbaric nonetheless. (What did the Father of the Nation say about an eye for an eye? Anyway.) If those accused are innocent, it is infinitely worse…

Let me anticipate a bit of the backlash to this letter. Yes, I feel as bad about the rape of children as the next person (not those who took out rallies in support of the rapists of the Kathua child, but, you know, most people). In fact, I’m a little more invested than the average armchair activist—my first book, which I have been researching for since 2013, is about rape in India. Hence proved: I am neither heartless nor headless. So when I and other activists strongly condemn the death penalty, in general, and especially for the rapists of children, we have our reasons. In a system so flawed, so fallible, the death penalty must be scrapped entirely, not have its scope widened. Do we want to be like China or follow the rest of the developed world?

There’s a rather misguided article doing the rounds about how sexual harassment must not be graded, that one act is as bad as the next. That’s bullshit. There is no doubt that the rape of a child is worse than the rape of an adult person, but it is certainly better than the rape and murder of a child. But, using an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ principle, rapists will now murder the child if both have the potential to get them the death penalty anyway. This way, without a living eyewitness, they may just have the chance to get away! The death penalty for child rapists will lead to an increase in child rape plus murder. Mark my words.

You know what else it will lead to? Less reporting. Because it’s easier to report rape when it was perpetuated by a stranger, when there was violence. As you may know, stranger rape, violent rape is the exception, not the rule. Will a child be able to identify his/her grandparent or uncle or aunt as the perpetrator if s/he knows this will send the person to the gallows? Will the parents take things forward? Will a judge? It may also lead to even fewer convictions. Think about it.

So, those of you reading my letter, educated, rational citizens of India… Please, think. Please, oppose this amendment. Let’s not settle for tokenism. Let’s not get distracted from the failings of the government to protect its weakest citizens. Let’s not forget that changing laws is the easiest thing to do.

Let’s expect well-thought-out laws and better enforcement. Let’s start with catching these men and putting them behind bars for life. (It is punishment enough; trust me, Indian jails are hell on earth.) Meanwhile, let’s work towards a culture where such impulses aren’t seeded in the first place.

Tara* Kaushal

This letter appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in April 2018.

Interview: Survivor Suhashini Thomas by Tara Kaushal

March 2018: Part of a series of interviews Sowmya Rajaram and I conduct of survivors of gender violence.

When Suhashini Thomas was just two years old, she was sexually abused by an older male cousin, commencing a series of episodes that would last 15 years! She finally escaped his abuse by putting a physical distance between herself and the abuser.

Years later, after having the chance to connect with her to-be mother-in-law (who is a counsellor), she was able to open up about her experience for the first time. She decided with her now-husband that she would pursue legal action under the newly minted POCSO laws. When that met a dead end due to bureaucratic red tape, Suhashini chose to let go of the case. She got married and moved on to what she assumed was a different life.

However, at a time when she least expected it, after the birth of her son, the memories resurfaced in deeply painful forms and led her to a therapist. As they dug through her history and worked together to create a strategy to combat her post-traumatic stress, Suhashini decided that it was time to share her story with the world. Today, for the first time on camera, Suhashini speaks to Sowmya Rajaram of her difficult journey from victim to survivor.

Videography- Rahul Deshpande | Production- Jacob Cherian & Priyanka Sutaria | Editing- Kartik Rajan

This interview appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in March 2018.

Interview: Survivor Sonam Mittal by Tara Kaushal

October 2017: Part of a series of interviews Sowmya Rajaram and I conduct of survivors of gender violence.

In 2015, Greenpeace India was rocked by allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. At the centre of it all was a blog post written by this former employee.

When Sonam, a multiple-rape survivor, joined Greenpeace at their Bengaluru office in 2012, a senior colleague sexually harassed her. She complained to HR—but her complaint was not taken seriously, although the man was known to be a repeat offender. So when another colleague raped her a year later, she was unable to report it to the police or to her employers. “How could I, when the process had failed me once already?" Depressed, she resigned a few months later.

In February 2015, two years after the assault, she finally gained the courage to speak about the episode on social media, as well as about the systemic violence she had faced. It was a decision that would change her life.

She says that therapy helped her understand that what happened to her was not her fault, and allowed her to go public. She weathered the victim shaming, and has even used the title of a hateful blog written about her—Spoilt Modern Indian Woman—as the name of the feminist collective she started on Facebook. She also founded an NGO called Azaadi that helps organisations develop a proactive approach to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Today, for the first time on camera, the ‘Greenpeace Girl’ speaks to Sowmya Rajaram of her difficult journey from victim to survivor… and activist.

Videography- Rahul Deshpande | Production- Jacob Cherian & Priyanka Sutaria | Editing- Poulomi Roy

This interview appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in October 2017.

Interview: Survivor Adrienne Thadani by Tara Kaushal

August 2017: Part of a series of interviews I conduct of survivors of gender violence.

An Indian-American, Adrienne came to Mumbai in 2010 to learn about her roots, fell in love with the country and stayed on as an organic farmer. Around Diwali in 2015, she returned home at night but the front door wouldn’t open. Neither the watchman nor the men he brought—who she assumed were locksmiths—were able to open it. As she sat alone on the landing outside the apartment speaking to friends about where she would stay, one of the men attempted to rape her.

She fought him off and pleaded with him as he dislocated her jaw, banged her head against the floor and broke her fingers, all the while trying to disrobe her. Eventually, she managed to get away, call the lift and stumble into it.

She says she felt strong and powerful after the act—she had caught the perpetrator, got him to the police, got two sets of medical checks, arranged witnesses and, basically, did everything she could to get justice. Two months “of hell” later, owing to the indifference of and difficulties with the law enforcement agencies, she was devastated and depressed. “What is the justice?” she asks.

A year and a half later, she tells me of her difficult story from victim to survivor, and how she has re-found her voice.

Videography- Amol Kamat Photography | Production- Priyanka Sutaria, Arti Jairaj & Rumit Gambhir | Editing- Dhyey Chitalia & Shailesh Makwana (Picture It Photography)

This interview appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in August 2017.

Congratulating Sapna Bhavnani by Tara Kaushal

July 2015: All praise for her speaking out about being gang raped in the viral Humans of Mumbai post.

They say there are two reasons one keeps secrets—because something is private or because something is wrong. Over the years, I find that secrets play an increasingly insignificant role in my life. Because, in my quest to have/be an ‘integrated personality’ (my friend Jordyn’s term for being the same person in all situations while responding to context, of course), I’ve been seeking to dispel the ‘private’ and reduce doing—and creating secrets of—things that I consider ‘wrong’.

In one aspect, Sapna’s and my views on secrets differ. “It took me 20 years to voice my incident, but for me a woman keeping it all within her because she has no other choice isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s a mark of strength and something we need to start respecting,” she says in her viral Humans of Mumbai post about being gang raped at 24. To my mind, the “no other choice” bit of the sentence contradicts the ‘silence is a mark of strength’ assertion, but I’m going to let that slide. At this point, I cannot compliment Ms Bhavnani enough.

Though she and I know each other and say hello when we see each other at parties, we’re not friends or anything. I’ve always admired her spunk, from the time she was writing those Sex and The City-style columns in Mumbai Mirror back in the day. Over the years I’ve watched her become increasingly activistic on Facebook where we are connected, stray cat this and village that, making the shift away from Bollywood that had claimed her for a brief moment. Then there was her role in the evocative play Nirbhaya

And now this. Her post is a win in so many ways, big and small.

There’s the casual back-at-ya censure of society for labelling a 14-year-old a "whore" for talking to boys, driving motorcycles and smoking; and the contrast with Western freedoms. There’s the appropriation of the word ‘whore’, loud and proud.

Most important is her assertion that she never let the incident break her spirit.

One of the many problems with Indians’ attitudes towards rape is the exaggerated ‘haaaaw’ that society reserves for survivors. Even when it’s well-meaning: there were those who said it was good Jyoti Singh Pandey died, whatever would the poor thing do without her honour if she had survived?!

Don’t get me wrong: being raped is a terrible thing to happen to someone, raping someone is one of the worst things you can do. But victims of sexual violence left with no permanent physical damage could well choose to deal with the emotional scars by brushing the incident off as just another stick in the hole, no permanent physical damage done, big deal.

I have. Sapna took a (deeply symbolic) shower, and then pushed the incident to the back of her mind. This is not an option for women in environment where there are permanent social repercussions to reinforce the momentousness of that moment—as though your own emotional and physical trauma wasn’t enough.

Unlike most victims of sexual violence who internalise blame, it appears that Sapna kept the rape secret because it was private, and not because she felt she was in the wrong.

“I still wear short dresses and the brightest red on my lips,” she says, standing out as a beacon of hope. Yes, there can be—and is—life after rape. (Or anything else for that matter. As Jung said, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.")

I’m glad she’s said it, after “keeping it all within her” all this while, and for the number of people it’s reached. I scroll down her Timeline and, 10 minutes of scrolling later, I’m still only seeing the flood of congratulatory messages  (filled with words like "inspiration", "hero") coming her way about this post.

Here’s mine.

An edited version of this article appeared on iDiva in July 2015.