By candlelight, a nation confronts its dark heart

It won’t be so easy to change the deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset that lead to the rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi.

Indian activists take part in a candlelight vigil
Indian activists take part in a candlelight vigil. Photograph: Getty Images

On the evening of 16 December, a 23-year-old woman set off for home with her fiancé after watching a film at a south Delhi cinema. They hailed a chartered bus, a private vehicle used to ferry schoolchildren during the day and which prowls the city streets by night in search of passengers.

There were no other passengers on the bus. There were six men, all staff. The men assaulted, beat and raped the woman as the bus –which had large, tinted-glass windows so that no one could see in –was driven around the city.

A rusty iron rod was forced into her. A part of her intestines was pulled out. (Her injuries were so severe that the whole of her intestines later had to be surgically removed. But the infection could not be contained. It spread to several of her vital organs.) The men then stripped the woman and her fiancé and threw them out of the bus.

The woman, who has not been named to protect her identity, was a student of physiotherapy from a lower-middle-class family. Her father, a loader with a private airline at Delhi Airport, had sold his ancestral land to pay for her studies. She gave private tuition to help out. She lived with her parents and two younger brothers in a one-bedroomed flat on the edge of the city.

As doctors fought to save the woman’s life in a Delhi hospital, India erupted in a manner never seen before. People were overwhelmed by the horror of the incident, angry and ashamed that it could have happened.

Waves of protests engulfed the country. In a country familiar with political rallies and speeches, these demonstrations drew a very different crowd: young men and women, mostly ordinary citizens, gathered in their thousands at various venues, among them the homes of the president of India and the chief minister of Delhi.

As candlelit vigils and marches persisted through the days and nights, police arrested six suspects by 21 December. But that was barely enough to assuage the people’s anger. It could have been any of us, they said. They wanted action. They wanted change. One of many demands was the death penalty for those convicted of rape.

Silence

As the horrific incident and its aftermath continued to dominate public discussion on television channels, in the newspapers and on social networks, the Congressled United Progressive Alliance government misread the public mood. Its initial silence was interpreted as indifference. It was not seen to be acting; it was not seen to be empathising with the young woman and her family; it was not seen to be reflecting the convulsed conscience of a nation.

People’s fury was exacerbated as barriers went up at certain protest sites, several underground train stations were closed and the government tried to put Delhi under lockdown.

With her condition worsening, the woman was flown out of the country in a plane chartered by the government, which by now had begun to try to control the damage inflicted on its image. She was taken to a hospital in Singapore on 26 December. In the early hours of 29 December, she passed away.

New Year’s Eve celebrations were muted across the country. We were shamed and chastened, united in grief, and the notion of revelry was not something that figured in most people’s minds.

As 2012 slipped into 2013, the Congress proposed harsher laws against rape: a 30-year jail term, chemical castration, and setting up fast-track courts to try the accused and mete out justice within three months. There has been only one conviction from the 635 cases of rape reported in Delhi between January and November last year.

That is not all. One of the accused in the bus gang rape is 17 years old. He is said to have been the most brutal of the young woman’s torturers. There is talk of redefining the Juveniles Act, of treating young offenders as one would adults, depending on the severity of the crime.

In the first week of the new year, the mood is still sombre, grief-stricken, impatient for change, angry and ashamed. Harsher laws are likely to come as soon as February to address the punitive aspect of the matter. But the slew of measures suggested to act as deterrents – stepping up police patrols; sensitising the force to deal with complaints of harassment from women; a more nuanced portrayal of women in popular cinema and advertising – may not be enough to make India’s streets safe.

Not all men want to be violent towards women or rape them. For those who do, it is a question of a deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset, upbringing, education and awareness. It won’t be so easy to change those things. That is the heart of India’s darkness.

As the six accused await trial, an entire nation will continue to look deep into its soul.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of the Hindustan Times, Mumbai, and the author most recently of the fatherhood memoir “Dad’s the Word” (Westland, Rs225)

Tags:India