“I hope a change is going to come. I think something will happen,” said Aswathy Senan, a young student in New Delhi as she stood with hundreds of protesters Saturday, mourning the overnight death of a 23-year-old rape victim. The woman had died hours earlier in a Singapore hospital of horrific injuries inflicted by a group of men who gang-raped her and beat her with iron rods in a moving bus in the Indian capital on December 16.
Across India, many voiced the hope that the incident will prove a tipping point, leading to better safety for women. Thousands of young people took to the streets in angry protests, leaders of the government promised swift action and celebrities said they felt ashamed.
Sumati Nayyar, a mother of two teenaged daughters, says she feels scared to let them out alone on public transport. “What sort of a society are we living in, where women in the 21st century cannot even claim the city as their own?” she asked. There were 24,206 cases of rape reported at police stations across India in 2011 and 228,650 cases of crimes against women that ranged from sexual assault including rape to molestation and abduction. Thousands more incidents go unreported, activists claim.
In efforts to allay the anger on the streets, the government has announced a slew of measures. In New Delhi, which had reported 661 rape cases in 2012, credentials of all bus drivers and their assistants are to be verified by the police. Tinted glass in the vehicles is to be removed and streets are to be better lit.
Fast-track courts are to be set up to try rape cases on a daily basis so that victims who have the courage to complain do not end up waiting endlessly for justice as has been the norm. An estimated 40,000 rape cases are pending in courts round the country. The protesters want quick justice for the victim and the maximum punishment the culprits can be given.
The government has set up a committee headed by a retired supreme court chief justice to look into raising punishment for sexual offences, with the death penalty for rape instead of the current maximum punishment of life imprisonment. The panel has already received more than 6,000 emails with suggestions from experts and citizens. Committees under retired judges have pondered the issues in the past, but their reports have gathered dust.
The violent death of Nirbhaya (fearless), Damini (lightening) or Amanat (trust) – the pseudonyms the Indian media have given the rape victim who cannot be identified under Indian law – may finally help sweep away that dust. “This incident may be a catalyst. We have to … make the police more sensitive, more efficient, and we have to work on changing the mindset of people,” social scientist Ranjana Kumari said.
Nayyar, the mother of the two daughters, says it has to begin with the way children are brought up. “There has to be sex education and gender sensitisation in schools,” she said. “And as a mother, don’t tell your daughters what they should not wear, where they should not go. Tell your sons to respect women, teach them how to behave,” Nayyar added.
“We are looking for a movement against patriarchy in our society and she is our martyr,” a young female protester told Times Now television. At the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, where protests swelled through the day, 24-year-old Nishant Prashar said: “Today we are here not as men, but as humans. We are at a point where we need to go out on the streets to show that there is still humanity.”
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and leaders of India’s two main political parties – Sonia Gandhi of the Indian National Congress party and Sushma Swaraj of the Bharatiya Janata Party – all vowed that action and reforms were on the cards. Among the most poignant reactions came from the rape victim’s family. India’s high commissioner in Singapore, TCA Raghavan, said the family was shattered by their daughter’s death, but was also deeply moved by the many messages of support. “They hope that the death of their child will lead to a better future for women in Delhi and IndiaSunrita Sen, "Indians demand better for women as rape victim mourned," Business recorder. 2012-12-30.