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What Tara Kaushal wants to tell you about rape

The contours of social class and caste are strong threads running through Kaushal's book 'Why Men Rape', which argues that upper-class predators are the most dangerous

Tara Kaushal's book is based on her extensive reportage on sexual violence in India. Photo: Sahil Mane.
Tara Kaushal's book is based on her extensive reportage on sexual violence in India. Photo: Sahil Mane.

When Tara Kaushal was researching her book Why Men Rape, at least three of her male interview subjects, while answering intimate questions, were aroused and started touching themselves. One of them tried to proposition her. Between 2017 and 2018, even as Kaushal conducted investigations with nine men who have committed rape, she felt physically unsafe only twice: once in Jammu’s Kathua district (“before Kathua became notorious”) and once in Bhopal. Was the psychological cost higher, I ask over a phone call. “I was inhabiting a persona. I treated it as work, and got it done,” she says, adding that it was imperative for her to have empathy for her subjects. “But there has been a psychological cost, no doubt.”

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Kaushal, the daughter of an Indian naval officer, tells me she was raped by a gardener at age 5 and “almost abducted” at 16 but that during her research she had to distance herself from her personal experiences of sexual violence in order to ask her subjects “Phir kya hua (What happened next)?” and produce the book she had set out to produce.

Kaushal’s book has been out since June but it was the gang-rape, and eventual death, of a 19-year-old Dalit girl by four upper-caste men in Uttar Pradesh which prompted me to call her at short notice. The contours of social class (which for Kaushal encompasses caste) is a strong thread running through her book. As one of the women speaking up about the late media personality Gautam Adhikari when #MeToo raged in 2018, Kaushal had specifically drawn focus to caste and class. “Contrary to the Shakti Kapoor idea of rapists—‘the Other’, loutish men waiting in the bushes—it is upper-class predators that are most dangerous. As gender violence tends to follow class lines, they have access to women of their class and below. They are affluent and powerful, so (they) get away with their crimes,” she had written.

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What is her response to those who say “the issue is being politicized” or that the Hathras rape case “is not about caste” or that “by calling out caste you are keeping caste alive”? “I would say you are either an idiot who doesn’t see historic oppression or an ass who doesn’t want it changed,” she says. Kaushal admits she had the privilege of growing up caste-blind in a liberal household. “It’s taken my own journey to realize that being ‘post caste’ is also a privilege,” she says. As she began to research her book, both caste and class were impossible to ignore.

“When you look at men from the uppermost social classes, they have an intersection of privileges. Men of the highest classes have access to women of their class and below. In addition, they tend to be trusted and respected and enjoy privileges that range from cultural to judicial,” says Kaushal. “On the other hand, lower-class women have an intersection of oppressions. They are preyed upon by men of their class and above. The Shiney Ahuja incident (Ahuja was convicted of raping his domestic help) is a classic example.”

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The men interviewed for the book belong to all sections of society: a doctor who raped his 12-year-old patient; a serial gang-rapist who doesn’t believe in the concept of rape; an unemployed youth who decided to kill his former lover. Alongside, Kaushal shares insights from survivors and experts. Anger, she believes, is the springboard, no matter what the background of the perpetrator. “All of my subjects had a chip on their shoulder about something or the other. The privileged men were irritated by migrants entering their cities; the poor were raging against the machine…capitalism and our political climate encourages discontent, hate and anger,” she says.

Why Men Rape contextualizes the interviews with academic research tailored to the Indian situation: India has been ranked among the world’s most unsafe countries for women, based on yardsticks of sexual and non-sexual violence, human trafficking and gender discrimination. Kaushal tracks the shift in theories right to Kate Manne’s Down Girl, a 2017 book that debunks the association of objectification with violence, arguing that the dehumanization of women is not necessary for misogynist violence. “The very fact that women are seen as fully human makes some perpetrators want to cut them to size,” says Kaushal.

While Kaushal has been associated with various media platforms over the years—she won the Laadli Media Award for gender-sensitive writing in 2013-14—I wouldn’t call her a conventional journalist. She is part crusader, an activist-writer (much like Rana Ayyub, see page 10). Her book is part of a multimedia activism project, Whymenrape.com, and plans for a sequel are already afoot. Kaushal is at present working on a book of narrative non-fiction that tracks the rape and murder of Neha Sharma, a 23-year-old PhD scholar in Agra, in 2013.

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Dealing with the aftermath of rape are the expected next steps, but Kaushal admits that while she is strongly against the idea of capital punishment, she hasn’t dwelt much on how perpetrators are to be treated and on the role of the judiciary. “My interest is in preventing boys and men from committing rape in the first place,” she says. “And understanding why men rape is the first step.”

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