A green tongue of water winds through Kalla Dhey, a patchwork of mud-walled houses and small fields in Karauli district in India’s northern Rajasthan state. The water, covered with algae, separates a few unlucky households from the rest of Karauli. During the monsoon, the green water rises, and the inhabitants are marooned on their temporary island, cut off for weeks at a time. Not long ago, residents say, a woman in labor had to be ferried in an inner tube to the other shore to get to a road that leads to the hospital.
During the dry season, a flimsy bridge of matted grass over the low river links Kalla Dhey to the rest of Karauli. In recent weeks, an unprecedented number of visitors have made their way over that bridge and along the dusty footpaths, past the sunlit fields of yellow mustard flowers and the faraway sound of kids at play. On a dirt outcropping stands a mud-walled shack with a sagging roof, windows covered in tarp when nobody’s home. It’s not much different than any other house around it, except for the strangers who keep knocking at its door, and the fact that two of the men who grew up here—brothers—have been accused of perpetrating one of the most heinous crimes in the history of modern India.
One of the brothers was Ram Singh, a bus driver who was found hanged in his cell in New Delhi in the early morning of March 11. Singh, 34, was being held in the capital’s Tihar Jail for his alleged role in the brutal rape that occurred on Dec. 16, when a 23-year-old woman walked out of a mall in the Indian capital with her friend, a 28-year-old man, after watching Life of Pi. Five of the six men charged with the rape and the murder that followed—the young woman died less than two weeks later—have been on trial since January. The sixth suspect is being charged and tried separately as a juvenile; all had pleaded not guilty. With Singh’s death, part of that case is closed, and, if he were guilty, he can no longer be brought to justice. But his story remains a parable about how violence, sexism, inequity and a lack of law and order intersected in India that Dec. 16 night—and a harbinger of what could yet happen again.
Once the couple left the mall, they ended up at a bus stop, where a white bus with yellow curtains pulled up and a young man inside called out that the bus was going their way. They climbed aboard, and at 9.24 p.m., according to police documents, the bus started moving. Over the next half hour, the woman and man were robbed, stripped and assaulted by the six males on board as the bus meandered through streets of an affluent area of India’s capital, passing cars, homes and pedestrians. The man was beaten, and the woman, a student, was raped multiple times, including with two metal rods that ripped apart her intestines. Both victims were thrown out, naked and bleeding, of the moving bus on an empty overpass. At 10:21 p.m., the New Delhi police received a call about two people bleeding on the street.
The crime sparked massive, nationwide protests for weeks, with men and women flooding India’s streets to demand swift justice for the young woman who fought her attackers fiercely, and for an overhaul to a legal system that has allowed violence against women all too often to go unpunished. A special fast-track court was set up for the case. In keeping with Indian law regarding rape cases, the trial has been closed to the media, and the two victims have not been identified by name by most Indian media outlets.
That six individuals allegedly conspired in this brutal crime, and that these extremely violent sexual assaults happen with alarming regularity across India, have raised unsettling questions about the underlying attitudes in India of men toward women. In 2011 more than 24,000 rapes were documented—one every 20 minutes. In New Delhi alone, of more than 600 cases filed last year, just one resulted in a conviction. But the Dec. 16 atrocity is more than another depressing statistic. It has spotlighted how weak law enforcement and a creaky legal system have create space for a sense of impunity to fester, and it indirectly exposes the plight of legions of people in urban India who don’t have access to the same opportunities or protection as the elite. The sustained outrage over Dec. 16 has many Indians holding out hope – however fragile – there is no going back. “We can’t be more desensitized than we have been over the years,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research, a think tank in New Delhi. “Things have to improve. This is the beginning of a change.”