Ram Singh, one of the five suspects on trial in New Delhi for December’s gang-rape case, was found dead in his cell in the capital’s Tihar Jail early Monday morning. Officials have said that the 33-year-old Singh, the alleged mastermind in the brutal sexual assault that captured the world’s attention last year, was found at 5 a.m., having hanged himself with his clothes. Singh and four other suspects have been on trial since January in a special fast-track court in New Delhi for the rape and murder of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student who, along with a male friend, they allegedly lured onto a private bus on the night of Dec. 16 and violently assaulted. (A sixth suspect in the case is being tried separately as a juvenile.) The male victim sustained minor wounds, and the female victim died less than two weeks later in a hospital in Singapore.
Singh’s death may flag yet another crack in a beleaguered criminal-justice system whose weaknesses has been on stark display as the Delhi gang-rape case has unfolded. Ram Singh was being held in a high-security section of Tihar Jail, where officials told Indian media that he and the other five suspects were on suicide watch. Jail officials told local media that Singh’s cellmates were present during the night, as was a guard. How, then, this key suspect in one of the most high-profile court cases in modern Indian history could commit suicide is the latest question that authorities will have to answer. A government probe was immediately ordered into Singh’s death.
Until the results of the inquiry are in, the conditions that Singh was living under at Tihar will likely remain murky. Tihar Jail is known for being one of the more progressive incarceration facilities in India, with extensive work programs for prisoners. But it’s also known for being overcrowded, and has been, in the past, almost at twice its allotted capacity. Rajat Mitra, a clinical psychologist and director of the Swanchetan Society for Mental Health, has worked extensively in the high-security area where Singh allegedly committed suicide. “It’s extremely crowded. Even in the night, a lot of people would be awake. I would doubt how he could manage to isolate himself,” says Mitra. Mitra says the case is “very uncommon.” In the 15 years he was working with sexual criminals at Tihar, he says he does not know of one case of suicide or attempted suicide, nor did he see a pattern of remorse among the men he studied that was in keeping with suicidal tendencies. “This raises lot more questions than it answers,” says Mitra.
One of the things Mitra stresses is the need for formal monitoring of the inmates. In January, Sunil Gupta, a law officer at Tihar, told TIME that the five suspects being held during their trial were given counseling per the jail’s protocol. But he also said the suspects were not treated any differently than other inmates currently under trial. “Authorities don’t take any special care working with them just because it is a high-profile case,” said Gupta.
After the Dec. 16 attack, men and woman took to the streets by the thousands to protest the inability of authorities to provide basic safety on the streets of Delhi and rural swaths of the country alike. The particulars of the Dec. 16 case — the banality of a young couple going home from a movie at the mall, and the brutality of gang rape on a moving bus that partially disemboweled the female victim — set off a round of soul-searching about how India arrived at the point where this kind of crime could unfold almost literally in plain sight in the heart of the capital. Sexual crimes are not uncommon in India, and while their incidence is lower than in some Western countries, experts say cases are widely underreported, due in large part to women’s lack of trust in the police. The cases that are reported are often slow to move through the justice system, when they move at all. “The general security capacity in India is completely degraded whether we are trying to protect women, or fight terrorism,” says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “Our capacity for maintaining the rule of law is abysmal.”
After a sluggish initial response to the public outrage in December, both the federal and municipal governments responded with a series of measures designed to beef up safety for women. Earlier this year, President Pranab Muhkerjee signed a new law that, among other things, allows for capital punishment for rape cases in which the victim dies or ends up in a vegetative state. The move met wide calls for the execution of the Delhi gang-rape suspects but was also criticized for being too limited in scope and for focusing only on punitive rather than preventative measures.
Many look at Singh’s own life circumstances as evidence of a failed system. Raised in a small farming village in Rajasthan, Singh moved at a young age with his brother and co-accused, Mukesh, and their family to a neighborhood in southern New Delhi occupied primarily by other migrant workers looking for a better life in the capital. Without any formal schooling that family members in the village recall, Singh and Mukesh were left largely to look after themselves in the new city, neighbors said. In the years since, neighbors also remember the brothers being difficult and at times violent, but do not recall the police ever being summoned on account of their intimidating behavior.
In 2009, Ram Singh appeared on a popular reality-TV show called Aap Ki Kachehri, in which citizens consented to bring their disputes, which were not in court, to be arbitrated on the spot by a well-known retired police officer and social activist, Kiran Bedi. When Singh was named by the Indian media in December as a suspect in the gang rape, Bedi says she immediately remembered his appearance on the show. Singh had fractured his arm in an accident while driving and brought his employer on the show to demand compensation. In the course of the episode, it came out that, when Singh had the accident, he was driving the bus without authorization and with expired insurance. “He was obviously a bully … and obviously unrepentant,” recalls Bedi. A police officer for 35 years, Bedi has long been advocating for police to increase their tracking of petty criminals before they move onto worse crime, ruining their lives and endangering innocent citizens. “When you don’t take care of minor offenses, they graduate to become major offenses,” Bedi says. “This was a preventable crime.”
In the weeks after the Dec. 16 attack, many in India expressed hope that the flurry of official activity signified that India had finally arrived at a tipping point; that there was no going back to the bad old days when horrific sexual crimes got buried, whether at the bottom of case files or the back of newspapers’ crime blotters. Others take a far more pessimistic view. Sahni has watched many past attempts to strengthen India’s security systems get rolled out to much fanfare, only to fizzle out over time without any enduring political will to back them. “Tipping points only happen over glasses of single-malt whisky in the drawing rooms of Delhi,” says Sahni. “There are no real tipping points in India. There is a stupid kind of optimism that things can’t get worse … but there is no bottom to how far we can go down. And we are going down.”
— With reporting by Raksha Kumar / New Delhi