photo - Madhumita Pandey, 26, has interviewed 100 convicted rapists in India. (Madhumita Pandey)
Madhumita Pandey, 26, has interviewed 100 convicted rapists in India. (Madhumita Pandey) 

NEW DELHI — In India, many consider them “monsters.”

Madhumita Pandey was only 22 when she first went to Tihar Jail in New Delhi to meet and interview convicted rapists in India. Over the past three years, she has interviewed 100 of them for her doctoral thesis at the criminology department of Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom.

It all started in 2013, first as a pilot project, months after the highly publicized gang rape and murder of a woman now known as “Nirbhaya” meaning “Fearless One.” The details of the case — a young, aspirational medical student who was attacked on the way home with a friend after watching the movie “Life of Pi” — struck a chord in India, where according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 34,651 women reported being raped in 2015, the most recent year on record.

Nirbhaya brought thousands of Indians to the streets to protest the widespread culture of rape and violence against women in 2012. That year, gender specialists ranked India the worst place among G-20 countries to be a woman, worse even than Saudi Arabia where women have to live under the supervision of a male guardian.

“Everyone was thinking the same thing,” said Pandey, who at the time was on the other side of the world, in England, finishing off her master’s. “Why do these men do what they do? We think of them as monsters, we think no human being could do something like that.”

The protests forced a national conversation about rape, a topic which still carries huge stigma in India. Pandey, who grew up in New Delhi, and saw her city in a new light after the Nirbhaya case, said: “I thought, what prompts these men? What are the circumstances which produce men like this? I thought, ask the source.”

Since then, she has spent weeks talking to rapists in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Most of the men she met there were uneducated, only a handful had graduated high school. Many were third- or fourth-grade dropouts. “When I went to research, I was convinced these men are monsters. But when you talk to them, you realize these are not extraordinary men, they are really ordinary. What they’ve done because of upbringing and thought process.”

In Indian households, even in more educated families, women are often bound to traditional roles, Pandey said. Many women won’t even use their husbands’ first names, she pointed out. “As an experiment, I phoned a few friends and asked: what does your mom call your dad? The answers I got were things like ‘are you listening,’ ‘listen,’ or ‘father of Ronak’ (the child’s name).’”