December 29, 2012 could go down as an historical day in the annals of Indian society. The death of a 23-year-old medical student has triggered a nationwide movement to make the country a more secure place for the fairer sex.
Never before has this nation of over one billion strongly rallied behind a gender issue that tends to be shrugged off as a social evil that can be prevented but not cured. As a fellow scribe recently put it, historically the commodification of women has been seen as a natural corollary to human existence by unfortunately, both the sexes.
Now the winds of change are blowing. India has found a new hero, a martyr who many believe has sowed the seeds for radical change. In the last three weeks, protests have erupted in different parts of the country, demanding stricter punishments for crime against women and greater accountability from the state’s law enforcement agencies. Men and women from all classes, religions, communities and social backgrounds have been occupying the streets. For several days, India’s capital New Delhi resembled a fortress with the presence of gun-wielding security men on the streets. Myriad restrictions were placed on the usage of public utilities such as roads and metro stations after protesters clashed with the police. Social media has been abuzz with news, views, debates and sometimes, angry rants. The Indian army cancelled its annual New Year bash as a mark of respect for the deceased soul.
So who is this 23 year- old and how has her death stroked the conscience of a citizenry that has more inherent differences than similarities? She was the proverbial ‘girl next door’ belonging to the fast expanding Indian middle class. A brilliant student, her father had sold off the family’s ancestral property to fund her medical studies. In a few months, she was supposed to get married to the man she was dating. On December 16, she got into a bus with the same man in the late hours of the night, after watching ‘The Life of Pi’ at a multiplex in New Delhi. Six lower-middle class men, including the driver and cleaner of the bus in which the doomed couple was offered a lift, imposed themselves on the girl. She was gang-raped and brutally battered with an iron-rod for around two hours. After the barbaric assault, the couple were stripped of their clothes and dumped to die near a flyover in the freezing Delhi weather. When the girl finally got medical attention, the doctors who attended her in Safdarjung Hospital could not believe the extent of the injuries inflicted on her body.
The girl fought on through multiple operations and surgeries, slipping in and out of consciousness. Her gangrenous intestines had to be separated due to the sheer cruelty of the attack. As the heat turned on the Delhi government for ineffective policing, it took the landmark decision of shifting the victim, on the state’s expense, to a better hospital in Singapore.
Despite receiving the best medical care and the prayer support of a nation in shock, Nirbhaya, meaning fearless in Hindi, succumbed to her injuries on December 29. (Nirbhaya is a name coined by the media, as Indian laws do not allow rape victims to be named unless explicitly permitted in writing by a family member).
As the details of this crime emerged, India went into soul-searching mode. This is the same nation that aspires to be a superpower in the next 20 years. Yet, it has a poor record when it comes to protecting its women.
Statistics released by India’s National Crime Record Bureau depict an appalling picture. Crime against women increased by 7.1 percent nationwide since 2010. In 2011, 24,206 incidents of rape were recorded, a rise of 9 percent from the previous year. Yet these numbers reflect only a slice of reality as many rape incidents go unreported because of social stigma. It is not uncommon for local kangaroo courts in India's interior villages to advise the woman to marry her rapist to "preserve her honour". Alarmingly in almost 94.2 percent of cases the victims know the offenders.
The reasons for crime against women are several: A low ratio of police officers to civilians, age old-idiosyncrasies that equate chastity with conservative dressing, a skewed sex ratio (nine women for every 10 men), fixed notions about how women should conduct themselves and a general inability to accept equality of the sexes.
A socio-economic reason that cannot be discounted is the government’s inability to broad base growth. India is still home to some of the poorest in the world. To them, the Indian growth story makes little sense. Social inequality breed’s crime and women are soft targets.
In death, Nirbhaya has become ‘India’s daughter’ and many see her as the country’s ‘Joan of Arc’. The media has labelled December 29 as ‘National Shame Day’. The widespread outrage has jolted the scam-tainted government in New Delhi, forcing it to set the ball rolling for amending several archaic laws. India’s current definition of rape is replete with loopholes, making a conviction unlikely in many cases. The law has been amended only twice, in 1983 and 2003, ever since it was established in 1860. Few days after the Delhi incident came to light, the government formed a panel of three legal experts, headed by a former chief justice of India, J.S. Verma, to review possible amendments and suggest more stringent punishments for the convicts. The committee, which is expected to submit its report by the end of January, has refreshingly asked for civil society members to pitch in with suggestions. Further, the government is contemplating to setup a national registry that will record details such as names and fingerprints of rape convicts. India has set up a so-called "fast-track" court to try the men accused of the gang rape. Another four such courts will be established in due course to try cases of crime against women.
For too long, Indian women have taken the occasional ‘eve-teasing’ and ‘inappropriate touching’ in their stride. After the Delhi incident, social media is flooded with promises, suggestions and calls for action, so that there is a zero-tolerance policy towards the mildest form of inappropriate sexual behaviour. The media too has taken on a more assertive mantle by engaging in constructive debates and moulding public opinion, so that the flame is sustained.
Revolutions are often written in blood. Death can be more motivating than life itself. In the same month of December, two years ago, a fruit vendor set himself on fire in protest against the social ills and corruption that plagued his country, Tunisia. His act and subsequent death became the catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. Mohamed Bouazizi’s actions are often described as the ‘drop that tipped over the vase’. For too long, Indian women have got a raw deal in their own land. Will the gang-rape and murder of an innocent 23-year-old medical student be that drop for the Indian society? Time will tell.
*Adith Charlie is a researcher working for the USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies.