On the evening of December 16th, a twenty-three-year-old woman from a lower-middle-class area in Dwarka, a suburb of Delhi, and a young man, an engineering student, watched a movie in a south Delhi theatre. The young man and woman were headed home, but a number of auto rickshaws refused to drive them all the way to Dwarka, a trip of around an hour. One driver bought them to area called Munirka, an urban village of cramped stores and irregularly built houses, home to thousands of young people who come to Delhi for higher education and better work. An old Munirka saying, “Munirka se Amreeka” (“from Munirka to America”) is a testament to the community’s ambition and the number of students and young professionals who moved to graduate schools and I.T. companies on the east and west coast from this low-income, high-I.Q. village. I am one of them.
Munirka was obviously a safe place for two young students to look for a bus. Delhi has a mixture of state-run and private-run buses. A white private-run bus was at a bus stop. The ticket collector bellowed out the name of the area they were headed to. They hopped in. It was 9 P.M. Apart from the driver and his assistant, the bus was empty except for four other men who seemed to know the driver. According to police and press reports, the men, who were drunk, began misbehaving with the woman. The woman and her friend fought back. In the following two hours, as the bus drove on, five men assaulted them, beating them with iron rods they had in the bus, raping the woman multiple times, and inflicting fatal injuries to her by inserting iron rods into her vagina. The bus passed several police checkposts and drove on to Mehrauli, an area of hotels and stores, which is adjacent to the Delhi International Airport. The men then threw the young man and woman off the bus beside the highway leading to the airport.
Passersby found the bleeding, injured pair but, wary of intervening in a case where the law was bound to be involved, they waited until a police patrol van arrived. The young woman and man were moved to Safdarjung Hospital, a leading Delhi public hospital. Indian law forbids revealing the names of rape victims and survivors, but the next morning, as the news of the horrific sexual assault spread, fury and loathing began to spread throughout Delhi and elsewhere in India.
In the first few days, several hundred students, mostly from the progressive Jawaharlal Nehru University—which is adjacent to the bus stop where she had boarded the bus in Munirka—came out demanding justice for the victim. But for rape victims in India, a country scarred by a high rate of sexual violence, justice is most often elusive.
According to India’s National Crimes Record Bureau (N.C.R.B.), 24,206 cases of rape were registered in the country in 2011; three-fourth of the perpetrators remain at large. The conviction rates in the rape cases in India has decreased from forty-six per cent in 1971 to twenty-six per cent in 2012. The N.C.R.B. has recorded a hundred-and-twelve per cent increase in reported rapes between 1990 and 2008 in India. And an overwhelming majority of instances of sexual assault go unreported because of the social stigma attached to rape, which penalizes the victims. Some psychologists who have interviewed rapists in Indian prisons believe most of them are serial rapists and that as many as ninety per cent of cases may go unreported.
India’s regressive attitude towards sexual violence came to fore as the political establishment reacted to the news of the gang rape in the national capital. “Women should not go out late at night,” Delhi Police Chief Neeraj Kumar said. The attitude of his police force was shockingly documented in April, when reporters from Tehelka magazine, working undercover, recorded their conversations with thirty Delhi police officers who blamed women for being raped, naming “everything from fashionable or revealing clothes to having boyfriends to visiting pubs to consuming alcohol to working alongside men as the main reasons for instances of rape.” The had argued, for example, that “in truth, the ones who complain are only those who have turned rape into a business.”
Two days after the crime, when female legislators sought to speak about it in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, they had to insist and shout for more time as the Speaker repeatedly told them that the House had other business to attend to; their male colleagues were largely inattentive. Sushma Swaraj, the first woman to become leader of India’s Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, spoke about the incident when the young woman was battling for her life: “Even if she survives, she will be a living corpse.”
As the doctors cautiously revealed the details of injuries inflicted on the young woman, who needed a gut transplant as her intestines had been torn by iron rods, thousands of students from colleges and universities in the city gathered in a spontaneous protest in Delhi. Anger spread like a heat wave. In my years in Delhi as a student and a reporter, the protests against the various instances of sexual assault would be attended and lead by left-leaning women’s organizations student groups. India’s conservative middle and upper-middle classes mostly stayed home. This was different.
The brutality of the assault of the unnamed woman, whom television networks and the newspapers began to refer as ‘Nirbhaya’ (the Fearless) or Damini (after a Bollywood movie character who stands up against the perpetrators of rape despite intense family pressure), forced thousands of citizens to leave their bubbles and gather at the India Gate monument in central Delhi, which overlooks vast lawns facing the Presidential Palace. Placards called for justice and “Death to Rapists” and “Hang the Rapists.” Others demanded “chemical castration” of the rapists. A week after the assault, the largest numbers of protesters sought to cross the barricades; the police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took eight days to speak out against the crime, and when he did, his statement was rather tepid. Rahul Gandhi, the ruling Congress Party’s General Secretary and the heir apparent to the Gandhi dynasty, who has tried to position himself as the champion of the young and underprivileged, never stepped out of his cocoon. Underscoring to the callousness of India’s political élite, Abhijit Mukherjee, a member of the Indian Parliament, whose father Pranab Mukherjee is the President of India, described the female protesters as “highly dented and painted women” who were “chasing two minutes of fame, giving interviews on TV.”
Delhi swung between rage and apprehension as medical updates about the young woman, who underwent three surgeries, fluctuated. On December 26th, the Indian government flew her to Mount Elizabeth Hospital, in Singapore, which specializes in multiple organ transplants. Two days later, she died of severe organ failure. “She was courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds but the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome,” Dr. Kevin Loh, the C.E.O. of the Singapore hospital, said in statement.
While the government tried to contain the protests—closing the Delhi subway, blocking the roads leading to India Gate and the Presidential Palace—grief and anger bought more protesters to other venues across the city. On Jantar Mantar, a square in central Delhi close to the Parliament, I met Preeti Singh, a housewife in her early forties, who wore a red vermillion mark on her forehead and thick gold bangles on her wrists. She had never been to a political rally in her life.
“I couldn’t bear it and came with my neighbours. I had to be here.” Singh, a slight woman, said, shaking with rage. “That girl died slowly, painfully, hour by hour. That is how her rapists must die. They should be cut to pieces, salt and pepper added to their wounds to make them suffer, and then they should be hanged in public. Only then there will be justice.”
Not every protester is making the same populist demands of revenge. At 9 P.M. on New Year’s Eve, I followed several thousand students, professors, writers, lawyers, and filmmakers in a procession from Jawaharlal Nehru University to the fatal bus stop. The slogans came from the India’s decades long women’s movement for equal rights and gender justice:
“Raat Main Bhee Aazadi ”(“Freedom at Night”)
“Din Main Bhee Aazadi” (“Freedom in Day”)
“Chunne Ki Bhee Azadi” (“Freedom to Choose”)
“Pehanne Ki Bhee Aazadi” (“Freedom to Wear”)
People cried as we reached the bus stop, which had been turned into a memorial. Candles were lit and handwritten notes addressed to the unnamed girl said, “You inspire us.” “We will carry forward the struggle.”
A little later, I met a former student leader and the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, Kavita Krishnan, who has emerged as the most important voice for women’s rights in India during the recent protests. A week ago, Krishnan was leading protesters outside the Delhi Chief Minister’s residence, when the police charged at them with water canons. Drenched and shaken, Krishnan, a woman with intense eyes, made a speech that has gone viral on the Internet, a veritable manifesto for dignity and equal rights for women. Arguing against the idea that women should not venture out, Krishnan said, “women have every right to be adventurous…. You are not going to tell us how to dress, when to step out at night or move about in the day, how to walk or how to walk or how many escorts we need!”
I asked Krishnan what she made of the calls for the death penalty and chemical castration. “It is scary,” she said. “That is no solution. If the government imposes the death penalty for rape, then there is the danger that a rapist will also murder the victim to ensure there is no testimony against him.” I knew Krishnan from my student days, and as a journalist had seen her rally for the questions of human rights over the years. I was curious what she made of the new wave of protesters. “I have met people from all ideologies and classes in the past two weeks. It is the first time I have seen people who would be conservative and jingoistic on a regular day willing to listen to someone like me explain that India also needs to repeal laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act”—which provides impunity to Indian soldiers deployed in conflict zones like Kashmir. “I was surprised that people were willing to understand that these laws allow soldiers to rape women in the border areas and never be held accountable.”
Krishnan’s reference to AFSPA brought back the memories of a face of a rape survivor I have never forgotten, despite the passage of years. In May, 1990, I was a thirteen-year-old student living near a town called Anantnag in Indian-controlled Kashmir when I heard about a bride who was raped by Indian paramilitaries on her wedding day. A decade later, when I living in Munirka area of Delhi, I went back to Kashmir as a journalist and visited her village. She is a brave woman and her husband is a brave man who supported her throughout the years. They lived in a modest house in a village out of a fairy tale, worked their fields, took whatever work they could find to raise and educate their three young children. We stayed in touch. Last summer, twenty-two years after she survived the assault, as her oldest son was in the final year of high school, she told me she still had nightmares; her husband would collapse with sudden back pain. A doctor agreed to see them and diagnosed them with intense post-traumatic stress disorder; after two decades, they were finally able to get some treatment. But the perpetrators, shielded by laws like AFSPA, have never been punished.
Although a younger, educated generation of Indians is becoming more gender sensitive, the pressing question is how far would the Indian government go to reform the laws dealing with sexual violence. Vrinda Grover, one of India’s foremost human-rights lawyers, told me that “the very definition of rape in Indian law has to be expanded and enlarged beyond vaginal rape to penetrative sexual assault by any object in any part of the body.” A bill to amend the criminal code to make those changes is pending before the Indian Parliament.
India also needs to reform the shocking procedures it employs during medical examination of survivors of sexual assault. Human Rights Watch has documented that India continues to use one of the most archaic and degrading forensic procedures, the “two-finger test” to “assess whether girls and women are ‘virgins’ or ‘habituated to sexual intercourse.’” According to the 2010 H.R.W. report, “Dignity on Trial,” the “two-finger test” is a practice whereby the examining doctor inserts two fingers into a rape survivor’s vagina to determine its “laxity” and the presence or absence of the hymen. If doctors, police, and judges don’t find evidence of “struggle” or “hymenal injuries,” the rape survivors are discredited as “loose” and “immoral women.” And India does not recognize marital rape as rape.
One of the most rampant forms of sexual violence in India is the violence directed by upper-caste men against lower-caste women. Hours after the cremation of the Delhi gang-rape victim, it was discovered that a Dalit, or former “untouchable” girl, was held captive for fifteen days and raped by upper-caste perpetrators in India’s largest state, Utter Pradesh. Earlier this year, a forty-two-old lower-caste woman in the Indian state of Maharashtra was stripped, beaten, and paraded naked by upper-caste men because her son was in a relationship with a girl from their family. “Stripping and parading a woman naked is not even an offense under Indian laws. The laws on sexual assault have to be expanded to include such crimes varying from hurt and humiliation to penetrative assault,” Vrinda Grover, the lawyer, told me.
India prides itself on its democratic polity, on greater social mobility and freedoms than most countries in its neighborhood. India could have told the story of that fearless young woman as a story of its success, had she not lost her life to the brutal assault. Her father had come to Delhi from a small village in northern Utter Pradesh state. He has worked for years loading passengers’ bags into planes at the Delhi airport. He lived with his five-member family in a one-bedroom flat and sold his ancestral land to raise money to educate his daughter. She would have graduated as a physiotherapist in a few years. The least that India can do to honor her memory is to reform its sexual-assault laws to ensure better, gender-sensitive policing, and bring to justice every person—regardless of his rank and position—who assaults a woman or extinguishes a life like that of our departed, unnamed girl. (Courtesy:http://www.newyorker.com)