On Monday morning, fighting for her life at a Delhi hospital, a 23-year-old victim of a brutal gang rape in New Delhi last week was unaware that at the heart of New Delhi in Jantar Mantar, a protest ground, a crowd massed in her defense, demanding justice. A week earlier, the 23-year-old, whose name has been withheld by authorities, had been gang-raped and beaten mercilessly with an iron rod and then thrown from a moving bus. The police arrested four suspects, and a trial is set to begin soon.
The horrific rape, which has dominated Indian newspapers, airwaves and television sets, has united the youth of the country in an unprecedented manner. A wave of protests and subsequent violence in the past week disrupted Parliament and brought New Delhi to a standstill for almost three days. While some of India’s more well-known agent provocateurs are in on the act, including anticorruption crusader (and now chief of the Aam Aadmi political party) Arvind Kejriwal, the unrest remains largely an expression of popular anger and exasperation. The young protesters are demanding the death penalty for the rapists and are furious at a government that is seen to have failed its women. “If a woman wants to go out at 2 or 3 a.m. in the night for whatever reason, her security has to be guaranteed,” says Sucheta Dey, a protester at Jantar Mantar on Monday afternoon. “There is insecurity at every level. Women are even harassed when they go to police stations to report sexual-violence reports.”
The spiraling protests had started a week back at New Delhi’s India Gate — a high-security area that abuts the Indian Parliament, the President’s palace and the Prime Minister’s residence. On Sunday, the protests — which had till then been peaceful — turned violent; some 3,000 protesters fought a pitched battle with the police, who tear-gassed and water-cannoned the crowd. They uprooted wooden poles that had been erected for Republic Day celebrations Jan. 26 and set them on fire, trashed vehicles and pelted the police with stones and water bottles. About 143 people were injured, including 78 policemen, one of whom, a police constable named Subhas Tomar, died in the hospital later. Home Minister Sushil Shinde told an Indian news channel that hooligans had joined genuine protesters and had damaged public property, forcing the police to take action.
The protests held the capital hostage for almost a week, drawing the otherwise elusive Prime Minister Manmohan Singh out of his quiet seclusion to address the nation on Monday. He said there was “genuine and justified anger and anguish at this ghastly incident” but appealed for calm and assured that “all possible efforts” would be taken to ensure security and safety of women in the country. “We will examine without delay not only the responses to this terrible crime but also all aspects concerning the safety of women and children and punishment to those who commit these monstrous crimes,” Prime Minister Singh said in a statement on Sunday. “I appeal to all sections of society to maintain peace and help us in our efforts.”
Part of the anger directed toward the government is a consequence of the nation’s declining conviction rate in rape cases (down from 44% in 1973 to 26% in 2010). This increased impunity, critics say, points to a systemic failing of the police forces, who do not treat rape as a serious crime. A sting carried out by the Indian magazine Tehelka in April interviewed 30 policemen, out of whom 17 had insisted that a majority of rape claims are either false or consensual. “In case after case, I have seen apathy and insensitivity,” says Rajat Mitra, director of Swanchetan, a New Delhi–based nonprofit that works with victims of abuse, violence and trauma. “The administration and lawmakers mostly see [rape] as a political issue where the event sullies the reputation of those in power.”
Meanwhile, the protests shut down the capital at the beginning of this week and turned it into a maze of diverted traffic and closed roads. Nine major metro stations were closed to deter demonstrators from reaching protest venues. The entry to India Gate and Raisina Hill — where the protests had turned violent on Sunday — was closed to traffic, and activists were asked to shift to the grounds of Jantar Mantar, long the designated spot for dissent. The streets were lined with young people making their way to the venue. At Jantar Mantar, hundreds of young people sat in a neat, ever expanding circle. As the protests got louder, the unequivocal demand seemed to be the hanging of the rapists, a call that has become a politicized talking point in India for the past week. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led the demand for capital punishment in the Parliament two days after the incident. “What is the government doing to curb rape cases in the capital?” opposition leader Sushma Swaraj had asked. “The rapists should be hanged; we need tougher laws to stop rapes.” Others have called for chemical castration for the rapists, claiming death or life imprisonment would be too easy a punishment for the heinous crime.
In India, rape is as yet not punishable by the death penalty. Public fury and political pressure has led the government to consider an amendment to the rape law, which could see “rarest of rare” cases of rape being punished by death. However, a statement released by women’s groups on Christmas Eve says there is scant evidence that the death penalty can act as a deterrent and in fact the death penalty might lower the conviction rate even further as it will be given out only under the “rarest of rare” circumstances. The most important deterrent is the certainty of punishment, rather than the severity of its form, activists say. “People want the rapists to be hanged because of anger and because of the impunity enjoyed by rapists in our country,” says Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “Out of 100 cases only 26 are punished, and that is shocking. Laws are archaic. There is need for overhauling the system and ending the impunity.”
And while the government waits for the report of the commission it appointed to review India’s sexual-assault laws, the clock ticks away. The 23-year-old victim is in critical but stable condition, with reports on Wednesday saying she was being relocated to a hospital in Singapore for further treatment. The days and months to come will no doubt witness some enhanced safety protocols to protect women, particularly at night — but whether that translates into long-term change in a country where a rape takes place every 20 minutes is far from certain. After all, safety, as Krishnan says, is a loaded word. “What women [in India] need is freedom without fear, and that can only come when they feel that the government and its institutions are with them all the way.”