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A rape that shook India
Publication Date : 06-01-2013
Nobody knows her name or has met her. But the 23-year-old physiotherapy student who died last week of injuries sustained while fighting her rapists in a moving city bus has left everyone shaken. And very, very angry.
Spontaneous country-wide protests by ordinary people have forced a re-think on laws pertaining to crimes against women.
Public anger has forced the government to constitute a fast court to try the six accused charged with the barbaric rape and murder of the anonymous victim. And to set up a commission under a retired chief justice of India to recommend changes in laws governing crimes against women.
Never before has a single criminal act moved so many as the horrid rape of the young brave-heart who fought her tormentors on December 16 till she became unconscious. Notably, none in the media revealed her name since an unwritten code expects it not to identify victims of sexual crimes.
Daughter of an airline loader, her family had sold the small piece of land in their ancestral village in eastern UP to pay for college fees so that she could qualify as a physiotherapist.
In the one-room hovel in South Delhi where the family lived, she was probably the only one who thought of rising above her condition through education. From the age of 13, she supplemented her father’s meagre income by teaching little boys and girls in the neighbourhood.
Ironically, her tormentors too belonged to the same socio-economic strata but, unlike her, they had chosen to drift, surviving on odd jobs or on petty crime. The driver of the bus had a violent past. His brother was a bus cleaner, one of the six was a “helper”. The other three were wastrels, one occasionally selling vegetables on a cart, another working as a low-paid gym instructor.
On the fateful day, they goaded the girl and her boyfriend, returning after watching a movie, to board the private bus. Not realising that all six on board, including the driver, were part of a single gang, the two got on the bus. Within minutes, their troubles started.
The youngest in the group, legally a minor, abused the girl for being out late (though it was only about 9pm). When her friend objected, he was beaten unconscious. As the girl intervened to rescue her friend, she was set upon. Six of them took turns violating her. Afterwards, they dumped the semi-naked couple by the roadside. A good samaritan informed the police who took the two to a public hospital.
Until the crime was highlighted on television news two days later, no one in authority bothered to take note. It would have ended up yet another statistic in the police record if not for the relentless media attention and widespread protests, especially by young college students.
Thousands marched carrying banners demanding justice; hundreds kept vigil outside the hospital.
In Parliament, women members cutting across party lines demanded a change in the law to enhance punishment from seven years to death. Realising that the people were angry and anguished, the government, belatedly, bestirred itself into action. Congress President Sonia Gandhi visited the hospital late one night. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telecast an appeal for calm while promising stern action against the perpetrators of the heinous crime.
Yet, there was no let-up in protests. Thanks to the 24-hour television coverage of protests in metropolitan India, the campaign for updating old laws to make the police force sensitive to crimes against women echoed throughout the country.
Meanwhile, the raped woman, unconscious and on life support, was flown to a Singapore hospital for “better” treatment. Critics alleged this was done to deny the protesters a focal point to gather. Tragically, she never woke up, dying in the Singapore hospital within 24 hours of being admitted.
Manmohan and Sonia were at the Delhi Airport when a special aircraft carrying her body from Singapore landed. A few hours later, she was cremated. The whole operation was conducted in great secrecy to avoid a possible law and order problem.
Two days later, the protests decidedly thinned, but there was no tangible dip in the popular anger. On television, social media and newspapers, expression of that anger remained undiminished. Aside from seeking enhancement of punishment for rape to death, the public sought a drastic change in the attitude of the generally misogynist police force.
The spontaneous protests following the barbaric rape indicate the growing influence of civil society. As in the case of the anti-corruption protests in 2011, it was individual citizens who vented pent-up anger against a dysfunctional system where the rule of law was a pawn in the hands of the rich and the powerful and the justice system was so slow that, very often, criminals slipped out of its grip.