The evening of December 16, 2012, had been picture-perfect. The young woman and her friend had just watched The Life of Pi at the Select City Walk mall and were in a hurry to reach her home in southwest Delhi.
After repeatedly failing to hire an autorickshaw that would take them directly to her home, they took one to nearby Munirka at 8.30pm. Both hoped to board a bus from there.
A bus appeared. They seemed to be in luck. They were wrong, terrifyingly wrong.
The chartered bus, running on an illegal permit, had six men inside. The woman and her male friend boarded the bus after being told it was going their way.
The six men inside then proceeded to destroy two lives. The bus sped from Munirka to Mahipalpur and then back again towards Munirka as the young woman and her friend were assaulted inside.
All six took turns to rape her and brutalise her in front of her friend. Both were beaten to within inches of their lives during the 25-minute ordeal.
The two were finally dumped under the Mahipalpur flyover around 10pm. Left for dead, the couple lay here, stripped of clothes. Onlookers gathered around, but none stepped up to help.
Around 10.15pm, they were spotted by a PCR van. One of the personnel crossed the road and got them a blanket to cover up. They were rushed to the Safdarjung Hospital by 11.30 pm.
The young woman’s condition shocked even seasoned doctors.
said a senior doctor at Safdarjung Hospital.
She had injuries on the stomach and intestine, which doctors opined had been inflicted with a blunt object.
The girl fought on bravely for 13 days, but the criminals had done their job. She died at a Singapore hospital on December 29.
In the last one year, I have fought for change. I have hoped for things to change.
I joined the protests as a student who wanted to say 'enough is enough'. Politicians and the police promised the protesters a lot. But, little has changed.
A welcome change is that the taboo on discussing rape and sexual violence has been broken. The protests brought debates and discussions to our homes.
Another thing the December 16 gang rape and the subsequent protests seem to have changed is the time and thought the media is now giving to the coverage of sexual violence.
But, I feel there has been absolutely no change in the rape culture and related brutality.
The streets are not safe. Teasing and catcalling or worse are to be found everywhere. Sexual harassment in public places as well as inside the home is still rampant.
The only thing that can challenge ridiculous societal norms is the law, but I've lost faith in it. The law is actually impotent in the face of existing patriarchy.
But the law and the government alone cannot be blamed. We as a society have failed somewhere.
I do acknowledge, however, that a year is too less to undo what patriarchy has done over centuries. It is too embedded in our homes, our institutions and in our laws. The police may be a little more receptive, but it is not out of a sense of duty but out of the fear of censure.
Cops who have served in the badlands of Ballia regard it as one of their toughest assignments. They say that for the natives of this eastern Uttar Pradesh district, courage comes naturally.
It is no surprise then that Ballia’s daughter – the 23-year-old paramedic who put up a brave fight for her life -- inspired India into putting its foot down when it came to crime against women. Protests erupted with unprecedented fury, lawmakers worked with rare alacrity and the police learnt lessons that had been hard to teach for a long time.
There is little empirical evidence to ascertain what has really changed, particularly because exact data to make such a conclusion is not available. But it is clear at the outset that violence against women continues to increase every year.
Between 2001 and 2012, the number of alleged crimes against women has shot up by over a lakh. Cases of rape, kidnapping, assault, molestation and trafficking made up for 244,270 cases registered in 2012. Of these, over a tenth – 24,923 cases – were that of alleged rape.
As India’s creaking law and order machinery tries to cope with such crimes, it’s important to look at what goes on in the courtrooms.
A study on rape convictions by Prof Mrinal Satish of the National Law University, Delhi, throws up some seminal findings. Satish found that perceived notions of “chastity, virginity and marriageability” were factors for sentencing. The findings exposed how deep-rooted biases against women affected punishments for rape.
Popular notions, the study said, “consider rape a fate worse than death.” Notions of chastity, modesty, and social standing were given significant consideration in how a case was seen. If any of those attributes were successfully attacked, the convicts secured lighter sentences. “In cases where the woman’s behaviour did not adhere to stereotypical constructs, the men who raped them ended up getting lower sentences,” the study noted.
One of the common ways to attack a victim’s modesty and chastity is by pointing to her sexuality. If it is established she was “sexually active” before rape, the convicts get shorter terms.
Social standing too has been a factor. Even the Supreme Court has noted over multiple cases that rape lowers the marriage prospects for a victim. While this was probably true, its corollary meant a married woman would see her rapists get away with a lighter sentence. In the case of ‘Baldev Singh Vs Union of India’ the Supreme Court decreased the sentence because the victim had since married.
Similarly, a misplaced theme of “shame” has time and again been a factor with one court calling rape a “deep sense of deathless shame.” While the court’s observation was may have had noble motivations, a subjective view on shame has the potential to trivialise a rape if a court were to doubt a victim’s moral integrity.
Encouragingly, things are looking up in urban segments. Drawing room and office cubicle conversations are changing and hopefully, so are attitudes. There is growing awareness of what constitutes rape. But as the sexual assault on a young journalist from news magazine Tehelka last month revealed, such wrongs can happen to even the most empowered of women.
Responding to the Congress and the BJP’s offers of support to the Aam Aadmi Party to form a government in Delhi, the AAP on Saturday asked the political veterans to clarify their stand on 18 key issues before the debutant could consider taking support from either of them.
It is unlikely to become a deal clincher but providing women safety has been identified as the 16th negotiating point on the AAP list. The AAP has sought to know if the Congress and the BJP would support it in building a special protection force for women, get new courts and more judges to ensure every case of women’s exploitation was decided within three to six months.
A point-by-point response to the AAP’s checklist is awaited from the Congress and the BJP, but both have already spelt out their own agenda for women safety in their manifestos for the assembly polls held on December 4.
The BJP promised a 24-hour helpline, a dedicated ‘Women Security Force’ under the direct supervision of the chief minister, more hostels for working women, and fast-track courts for speedy trial in cases of violence against women.
The Congress vowed to recruit more women in the police force, give gender training to its entire workforce, push for police reforms and improve overall coordination between the state government and Delhi Police. This was a marked change from the Congress-led Delhi government’s first response to the December 16 gang rape - that law and order was not a state subject — last year.
But a few things have changed since a 23-year-old physiotherapist suffered the unimaginable on December 16 last year. Violence against women is no longer an academic discussion or a topic for TV debate. It is part of the mass discourse, something the political class cannot afford to ignore. Sufferers and their families are coming out in increasing numbers to lodge complaints and demand justice.
However, judicial remedies or police reforms, though absolutely necessary, are mostly curative, rather than preventive, measures. Delhi Police’s data shows that almost 50% of the crimes committed in the capital are in the “working class neighbourhoods” in the outer, northeast and southwest and southeast districts. Police presence is patchy in these areas because a disproportionately large chunk of resources are diverted to VIP zones. While redistribution and repurposing of the existing force requires coordination with the Centre in this city-state, the BJP’s ‘women security force’ or the AAP’s quasi-armed citizen force will have little impact if these too are sourced and remain restricted to only a certain pockets of the city.
However, the bulk of necessary preventive measures that make a city safer are a matter of routine governance. Nothing stops a Delhi government from ensuring that the city is well-lit uniformly and not just in VIP patches and affluent neighbourhoods, that walking space is free of encroachments, public transport is reliable and last-mile connectivity is taken care of even during late hours.
Ensuring safety of women, like safety of any citizen, is the first duty of the state. It is about ensuring that civic infrastructure and administration are functional and dependable. Since December 16, 2012, the political class has repeatedly promised women safety. But making a city more inclusive of women’s needs does not require debates in Parliament or major policy changes. A year on, our elected leaders just need to provide effective governance.
16/12 and after: a tale of horror