On the afternoon of December 13 in the East Delhi area of New Ashok Nagar, nine-year-old Sangeeta (name changed) came running home. Slamming the door shut behind her, she told her mother breathlessly that she had managed to escape the clutches of a man who had tried to kidnap her minutes ago. “We assumed it was an abduction attempt and thanked god for saving our child, until the January 11 incident happened and the perpetrator turned out to be the same man,” said Sangeeta’s mother.

On January 11, Raima (name changed), a 10-year old girl in the same neighbourhood, was on her way to tuition class when she was lured away and sexually assaulted, allegedly by the man Sangeeta had escaped – a tailor named Sunil Rastogi. Like Sangeeta, Raima, too, told her parents of what had happened, and they approached the police. This eventually led to Rastogi’s arrest from his house in Bilaspur, Uttar Pradesh, on January 14.

The 38-year-old told the police he had been visiting Delhi every week or fortnight, travelling from his home in Bilaspur to nearby Rudrapur in Uttarakhand and then taking a train to Ghaziabad. Media reports said he claimed to have sexually assaulted over 500 girls between the ages of seven and 11 in the past 12 years, and attempted to assault 2,500 more. In the Capital, he stalked them outside schools and in and around localities he was familiar with in East Delhi and neighbouring Ghaziabad.

The police are verifying his claims and have thus far gathered details of 58 cases of sexual assault, and traced 15 first information reports registered against him in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The cases include three incidents in New Ashok Nagar, of which one was reported on January 11 (when Rastogi targeted Raima) while two took place on December 13 – one involving Sangeeta and a similar incident with another minor girl, which was caught on CCTV camera in the locality. The footage helped the police ascertain Rastogi’s identity.

According to media reports, Rastogi served a jail sentence in Haldwani in Uttarakhand for kidnapping and molesting a minor girl, and was released in May. Since 2008, he has also been arrested four times for possession of drugs and kidnapping.

In 2004, Rastogi and his family – a wife and five children – were forced to leave their home in East Delhi’s Mayur Vihar after he allegedly tried to assault a neighbour’s daughter. Before moving to Bilaspur, the family also lived in Noida’s Buddh Vihar between 2014 and 2015, but they were again forced out after he allegedly sexually assaulted young girls in the neighbourhood. No cases were registered.

Jail no deterrent

Prison and the punishment he received at the hands of his neighbours did little to deter Rastogi. But many believe that society is as much to blame for allowing him to target young children for years.

“Rastogi clearly did not get any help when he was in judicial custody,” said Anuja Gupta, executive director of Rahi Foundation, a centre for women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse. “The onus is on society, and not just restricted to the criminal justice system. What have we done to actually stop child sexual abuse? Child sexual abuse should be seen as an epidemic and treated in stages, with larger intervention from all sections of society, including the government.”

Gupta added that persons with behavioural perversion, such as Rastogi, can be treated thorough counselling and rehabilitation, among other methods.

According to Swagata Raha, a researcher with the Centre for Child and the Law at the National Law School of India University in Bengaluru, the law can act as a deterrent only if institutions, authorities and people responsible for dispensing and facilitating justice function fairly. “The Sunil Rastogi case tells us that punishment alone is never the solution in cases like these,” he said. “Mental health assessment is absolutely essential and we have to look at treatment programmes and support groups to stop paedophiles from acting on their impulses.”

In the wake of rising sexual violence, especially against children, the Union government has proposed a registry of sex offenders, draft guidelines for which are still being worked out. However, Raha said that such a solution has proved ineffective in countries that have introduced it. Such registries exist in countries including the Unites States (accessible to the general public), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Mental health assessment

Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists Scroll.in spoke with agreed that mere imprisonment does not serve as a deterrent to repeat offenders, and it is very important to counsel them properly as well.

“Jail cannot deter a child sex assaulter as long as the act gives him pleasure and he is addicted to it,” said Avdesh Sharma, International Lead in the Public Education Initiatives of the World Psychiatric Association. “Unless one gets to the core, there is highest probability of the offence getting repeated. The criminal justice system should be inclusive of mental health assessment and counselling.”

But conducting a mental health assessment of a person with a compulsive urge to sexually assault children is also a challenge.

“A repeat sexual offender lacks remorse and empathy, which makes the process complex,” said Samir Parikh, director of the Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences Department at Fortis Healthcare. “Mental health evaluation makes sense in such cases, but assessment is a tough job because such persons do not cooperate with the counsellor.”

According to Rajat Mitra, a senior clinical psychologist who has worked with inmates of Tihar Central Prison in Delhi for over 13 years, such behaviour cannot be done away with but it can be controlled thorough counselling and strict surveillance. “During counselling, repeated child sexual crime offenders often try to befool counsellors, pretending they have been cured by exhibiting certain signs, suggesting significant improvement,” he said.

He added that shaming such offenders did not help. “It was widely witnessed in Tihar that many such offenders who were often shamed by security personnel stopped showing signs of improvement despite availing thorough counselling,” he said. “Counselling works in such cases only when the counsellor is specialised in this area.”

Behaviour pattern

Most sexual offenders who prey on children follow a pattern of behaviour, according to experts in the field. Rastogi was no different.

According to the police, on the basis of the cases that have emerged so far, Rastogi would approach his target by pretending to be her father’s acquaintance. He would tell her that he had a parcel for her from her father and even pretend to speak with the father on his mobile phone. If he succeeded in convincing the girl, he would lure her to an isolated building where he would assault her. He modified his pattern at certain stages depending on the reaction of his target.

News reports said Rastogi also had a lucky outfit – a red sweater and a pair of jeans – that he wore every time he went on the prowl, believing it would keep him from getting caught. And he always took the same train to the Capital.

“Such repeated pattern is not unusual,” said Avdesh Sharma of the World Psychiatric Association. “Perpetrators in cases of repeated sexual assault often develop tricks and once they succeed, they tend to repeat them. In case of children, they are more vulnerable and often get convinced easily.”

Echoing Sharma’s view, clinical psychologist Rajat Mitra said, “Sexual offence against children is a planned crime and there is often room for modifying on the repeated tricks that the offenders use.”

On December 13, Rastogi failed to fool Sangeeta because she became suspicious of something bulging out of his pocket, which she assumed to be a weapon. She also caught on to a change in his behaviour as they approached the place where he meant to lead her, the police said. As Rastogi lost his focus for a moment, the girl made her escape. Later that evening, another one of his targets also fled when Rastogi forced her to climb the staircase of a dimly lit, isolated building. This was the incident that was caught on CCTV. These failures may have driven him to change tactics on January 11, when he physically assaulted 10-year-old Raima as soon as they reached the location he had led her to.

“Such patterns can broadly be classified into grooming and abuser tactics,” said Anuja Gupta of the Rahi Foundation. “While grooming is a technique widely used by perpetrators close to the victim, in which the offender uses gifts and words to make the child feel special in his presence, abuser tactics are hit-and-miss methodologies often followed by offenders who are strangers, like in the case of Rastogi.”

Telling them apart: Repeat offenders and paedophiles

Most media reports have called Rastogi a paedophile or given him the tag of a serial offender, but Gupta objected to the use of such terms.

“Serial is a redundant term because child sex offenders inherently have a tendency to repeat the offence until [and at times even after] they get caught,” she said. “Also, it is difficult to conclude that Rastogi is a paedophile as his acts do not fall in line with the characteristics of paedophiles. At this moment, he can at best be termed a repeated sexual offender who targeted minor girls.”

She explained that paedophilia is more a matter of orientation, and that paedophiles often form a close network within which they share information about their victims, make every possible attempt to stay close to children and chose professions that suit their needs. Among the most well-known cases of paedophilia in India is that of Dr Freddy Peats, who ran an orphanage in Goa and was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting his wards, injecting them with drugs and using them to run a prostitution ring.

“Rastogi, however, worked in an isolated manner,” Gupta said, pointing out the differences. “He even got married and has five children. Though he targeted girls outside schools and in their localities, there was apparently no intense urge in him to be amid minors.”

According to Gupta, the use of the “serial paedophile” tag by the media does more harm than good to the fight against child sexual assault. “First, it creates a perception that only a certain type of person, whom masses would soon associate with Rastogi, can commit such heinous crimes, although in reality, in a majority of cases, the perpetrators happen to be close relatives [of the victims],” she said. “Secondly, exaggerated figures which are highly based on assumptions, like over 500 cases attributed to Rastogi, dilute the importance of isolated cases as far as public outrage is concerned.”

Is prevention possible?

As for prevention, the psychiatrists, counsellors, lawyers, researchers and activists Scroll.in spoke with agreed that the probability of stopping sexual assault is higher in cases where the perpetrator is a stranger, as in Rastogi’s case.

However, in 95% of the child sexual assault cases that are reported, the perpetrator is known to the victim, according to latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau.

In her book Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India, published by Penguin, senior journalist Pinki Virani has drawn up a list of preventive measures that include teaching children to speak up and question adults if they do something that makes them uncomfortable, explaining to a child the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch”, establishing a comfortable atmosphere at home to encourage children to disclose anything that they may feel is a violation, knowing where the child is at all times and being familiar with the child’s friends, believing in what the child says and paying attention to small changes in behaviour.

She also pointed to an effect of child sexual abuse, especially among boys, that required more attention: that of the victim growing up to be an offender. “They might, in turn as adults, sexually abuse children at home, in their own neighbourhoods, actively seek out professions which bring them in contact with children,” she said. “That they were victims themselves does not give them the licence to wreak havoc on another child’s psyche but it suits them to not see it that way.”

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, she said, is “yet to be a fully alive law”, and suggested setting up a national registry of sexual offenders and dealing with cases within a year to strengthen the system. However, she added, “prevention remains the most prudent form of cure”.