‘India’s Daughter’ brings nation together

Syed Zafar Mehdi

On the fateful night of December 16, 2012, a 23-year-old para-medical student was ruthlessly gang-raped and assaulted in a moving bus in New Delhi. The incident shook the nation. Thousands of irate protestors, mostly youth, poured out on the streets across the country the very next day. As the victim battled for her life at Safdarjung Hospital, people across India prayed for her speedy recovery. After being on ventilator for many days, her condition deteriorated and she was air-lifted to Singapore for advanced medical treatment. She finally succumbed to her injuries at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore on December 29, 2012. Her body was cremated according to Hindu rites on December 30.

As the news of her death broke, protestors in India stormed streets and demonstrations only turned louder and raucous. They demanded death to the accused and stringent law to deal with the rapists. The story around the incident has hogged the headlines everywhere, forcing partially-paralyzed government on the back foot. Social media has been abuzz, and many social media commentators have unequivocally condemned the incident and made strong case for robust legal remedies to avert recurrence of such horrifying crimes in New Delhi, which has earned the dubious distinction of being the most unsafe city in India.

In the happy days

The victim, who has been bestowed with pseudonyms like Jyoti, Jagruti, Amanat, Nirbhaya and Damini was born and brought uo in Delhi, while her parents originally hailed from a small village in the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh. Her father, who had to sell of his agricultural farm to finance her studies, works as loader at Delhi’s airport. Eldest of three siblings, her parents had pinned immense hopes in her. She was exceptionally good in studies and used to give tuition to children at their one-room flat near airport. Her childhood was mostly spent in that one-room flat.

She had initially wished to become a doctor but couldn’t afford the mammoth fees so she settled for physiotherapy. After four years of study in Dehradun (Uttarakhand), she had returned to Delhi in October for an internship. Since November 2008, she was working for a call-centre outsourcing firm in Dehradun. The 23-year-old used to work overnight shifts at a call centre, fielding calls from mortgage holders in Canada, as reported by Wall Street Journal.

The fateful night

The girl and her friend – a 28-year old Software engineer from Delhi – were returning from a South Delhi mall after watching the movie Life of Pi on that fateful night. They boarded the chartered bus at Munirka bus stand for Dwarka. According to sources, when the duo entered the bus, only six people were inside, who were not the passengers. They started passing lewd remarks in a derogatory manner towards the girl, to which her friend objected, resulting in a heated argument.

They started to assault the boy with iron rod, and when the girl intervened; they thrashed her as well. The six men then dragged the girl to the rear of the bus and raped her. Medical reports later showed serious injuries to her abdomen, intestines and genitals as the accused men had pierced a rusted iron rod in her genitals.

After the brute assault, the duo was thrown out of the vehicle. The accused men even tried to trample the girl under the bus, but her friend somehow managed to save her.

Protests across the country

Protest marches, candle light vigils, silent sit-ins have been going on passionately across the country since the incident took place. The rage on the streets has only intensified since her death. Protestors demand exemplary punishment to the six accused men, and sweeping amendments in the laws related to rape in India. “Most of the rapists get away with milder punishments and many other accused are released from jails after serving their terms. The penalty should have a deterrent value, otherwise it becomes a joke,” says Sahil Arora, a young protestor in New Delhi.

However, Delhi government and police faced lot of criticism for its inapt handling of protests. Young protestors in Delhi were thrashed by riot police as they marched on heavily-fortified Raisina Hill, stone’s throw from the official residence of the President of India. Tear-gas shells, water cannons and batons were employed against the visibly enraged mob of protestors, who resorted to stone-pelting. Many political represtatives across the party lines took part in the protests, and they were also joined by activists, celebrities, academics, artists, students etc.

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter was abuzz with passionate updates. Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan tweeted, “Rape embodies sexuality as our culture and society has defined it. I am so sorry that I am a part of this society and culture.” Legendary actor Amitabh Bacchhan even penned down a poem to pay tribute to the victim.

Outcry outside India

While the horrifying incident has drawn widespread outrage and condemnation across India, from politicians, superstars and human rights activists, it has also generated international coverage and shaken up the international community. United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women condemned it unequivocally and called on the government of India “to do everything in their power to take up radical reforms, ensure justice and reach out with robust public services to make women’s lives more safe and secure.”

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon has also urged the Indian government to take concrete measures to ensure safety and security of women. “Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected,” he said in a statement. He welcomed the efforts by the government but called for “further steps and reforms to deter such crimes and bring perpetrators to justice”.

The perpetrators

Some of the accused men were nabbed by police within 24 hours. Now, all the six men involved in the case are in police custody. Ram Singh, the bus driver and his brother Mukesh Singh, were arrested in Rajasthan. Vinay Sharma, a gym instructor and Pawan Gupta, a fruit seller, were both arrested in Delhi. Muhammad Afroz aka Raju, who is the only minor of the six accused, was arrested at Anand Vihar terminal in Delhi. Akshay Thakur was arrested in Aurangabad, Bihar.

Most of these accused are residents of the slum in Sector 3, RK Puram. They were together that night, and were heavily drunk. The youngest one, Raju had joined them first time. The charter bus that Ram Singh drove on weekdays was not meant for public passengers and had tinted windows. They had picked up a carpenter earlier and robbed him of Rs. 8,000.

According to Delhi Police chief, the accused had washed the bus after the crime to eliminate evidence. According to some reports doing rounds, the accused told investigators that they tortured and raped the girl to ‘teach her a lesson’ as she tried to prevent them from assaulting her friend.

Shocking confession

In an exclusive interview to Zee News, a national television channel, on Januray 4, the 28 year old software engineer who accompanied the victim on that fateful night made some startling disclosures. He described in vivid detail how the duo was lured on to the bus and how the five men inside the bus misbehaved with him and his friend, leading to an altercation and brutal assault. The occupants of the bus, he said, had laid a proper trap before luring them on to bus. They were involved in some other crimes on the same day.

Slamming the police and public, he said they did not act swiftly. No one provided them clothes or called an ambulance. There were some 20 people there (including policemen), who were just watching them. “We were without any clothes, desperately trying to stop the cars and auto rickshaws passing by. Some of them slowed down but did not stop. We were lying there for about 25 minutes, before someone on patrolling stopped and called the police,” said the 28 year old man to Zee News.

“Nobody from public came forward to help us that time. They were probably afraid that if they helped, they would become witnesses to the crime and would be required to make rounds of police stations and courts,” he added. After the interview was aired by Zee News on the night of January 04, police filed a complaint against the channel.

Brouhaha over victim’s identification

Indian media had refrained from disclosing the identity of the victim and the man who accompanied her that night. But, after the victim died, many people suggested that her name be made public so that it becomes a source of inspiration for women to fight for their rights. Congress MP and Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor led the chorus, tweeting that the name of the braveheart girl be disclosed to honour her memory. His suggestion however did not go down well with his party. “I suggest that since he is a part of the government, he should have given the suggestion to the government rather than making any such statement in public,” AICC spokesperson Rashid Alvi said.

Another twist came when a British paper revealed her name, quoting her father as saying ‘We want the world to know her real name. My daughter didn’t do anything wrong, she died while protecting herself.” The Sunday People, the Daily Mirror’s Sunday edition, interviewed him in his ancestral village in Ballia Uttar Pradesh. The next day, Hindustan Times carried a story, quoting the victim’s father that he did not allow his daughter to be identified. Her identity should be made public only if a law was named after her, he told the paper.

Controversial remarks

Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and MP in West Bengal stirred the hornet’s nest by his ‘dented and painted misogynist remark, in an interview to ABP Ananda. “These pretty women, dented and painted, who come for protests are not students. I have seen them speak on television, usually women of this age are not students,” he said in Bengali. He went on to say that the students who go to discotheques think it is a fashion statement to hold candles and protest. The remarks snowballed into a major controversy and huge embarrassement for Congress party.

A spiritual guru, Asharam also sparked a controversy when he said the gangrape victim was equally responsible and should have “chanted God’s name and fallen at the feet of the attackers” to save herself from the brutal assault. Mohan Bhagwat, chief of right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) made another controversial remark saying that the rapes only occur in Indian cities, not in its villages (Bharat), because women in cities adopt western lifestyle. Both the remarks of Asharam and Bhagwat were vehemently denounced by the mainstream media.

After some lawyers initially refused to stand for the five accused men, a Supreme Court finally agreed to defend them. The lawyer representing three of the men charged with the gang rape and murder has put the blame squarely on the victim, saying he has never heard of a “respected lady” being raped in India. He says the male companion of the victim is “wholly responsible” for the gruesome incident as the unmarried couple should not have been on the streets at night.

“This is the type of herd mentality that most Indian men suffer from,” says Harish Kapoor, a social activist. “Justifying a horrifying crime by such lame and senseless arguments tells a lot about these people, from politicians to godmen to lawyers.”

The systemic overhaul needed

Government figures reveal that despite 635 reported cases of rape and 745 arrests in Delhi in 2012, there had been only one conviction. A total of 572 rapes were reported to Delhi police in 2011, up from 507 in 2010, 469 in 2009 and 466 in 2008. The government is setting up fast-track courts to ensure speedy dispensation of justice.

On January 01, government appointed a 13-member special task force headed by Union Home Secretary to probe into the safety issues of women in Delhi and review the functioning of the city police on a fortnightly basis. The task force comprises the Delhi city police commissioner, Delhi chief secretary, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women among others.

People in India are campaigning for the systemic overhaul. “Death penalty for rapists can never ensure justice for women. It is the women empowerment in our political, social and cultural institutions that will ensure justice,” says Vikram Paul, Delhi-based senior activist. “It is time to talk about Khap Panchayts and Personal Law boards also. We need rule of law where justice is accessible at easiest and fastest possible way.

……………………………………….

TIMELINE:

Dec 16: The paramedical student and her friend on the way back from a movie get into a bus at Munirka in south Delhi. She is gang-raped and tortured in the moving bus. She is admitted to Safdarjung Hospital.

Dec 17: Police arrest bus driver Ram Singh and two other accused.

Dec 18: The fourth accused is nabbed. Large numbers of people gather at India Gate to demand justice for the woman, battling for her life.

Dec 19: Doctors remove the victim’s intestines, susceptible to gangrene. Protests continue.

Dec 20: The friend identifies one of the accused as the rapist in Tihar Jail.

Dec 21: Police apprehends a juvenile, identified as the fifth accused.

Dec 21: As the young woman’s condition worsens, people take out a candle-light march outside 10 Janpath, the residence of Sonia Gandhi.

Dec 21: Police arrest sixth accused from Aurangabad in Bihar.

Dec 22: Home minister Sushilkumar Shinde announces a commission to probe the gangrape. Protests spread as police uses batons, water cannons and tear gas at crowds

Dec 23: The heart of the Indian capital turns into a battle zone as thousands denounce the gangrape. Clashes between police and protesters leave many injured at India Gate.

Dec 24: Two Delhi Police officers suspended for not stopping the bus with tinted windows in which the girl was raped.

Dec 25: Delhi policeman, who got injured during India Gate protests, succumbs to his injuries.

Dec 26: Gangrape victim flown to Singapore. Government asks a Delhi high court judge to probe the gangrape and suggest ways to make Delhi safer for women.

Dec 28: Sonia Gandhi joins Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and promises quick justice.

Dec 29: The woman dies in Singapore. Protests in Delhi turn worse..

 

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About Zafar Mehdi
Maverick journalist, irreverent rebel, travel freak, cricket junkie, reluctant fundamentalist, student of life, dreamer, believer.

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