India Demands Change as It Mourns Gang-Rape Victim

The brutal rape of a student has flamed violent protests across New Delhi, where people – especially youths -- turned out in droves to demand justice for the girl, whose identity is being kept under wraps by authorities.

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Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty Images

Indian protesters hold candles and placards during a rally in New Delhi on December 30, 2012, following the cremation of a gangrape victim in the Indian capital.

Indian police charged six men with murder Saturday, hours after a New Delhi paramedical student who was gang-raped and beaten on a New Delhi bus two weeks ago succumbed to her injuries at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore. The hospital’s chief executive, Dr. Kelvin Loh, said that the girl was “courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds, but the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome.”

The brutal rape had flamed violent protests across New Delhi, where people — especially youths — turned out in droves to demand justice for the girl, whose identity is being kept under wraps by authorities. The news of her death on Saturday lurched an already exasperated country into angry but peaceful mourning. The government shut down central New Delhi, closing down major subway stations and banning gatherings of more than five people in the city center. However, that did not deter protesters from gathering at the central area of Jantar Mantar to mourn the girl’s death. Some shouted antirape slogans, while others favored a silent protest with black bands over their mouths. What united the protesters was the palpable antigovernment sentiment.

(PHOTOS: In India, a Rape Sparks Violent Protests and Demands for Justice)

After news of her death spread, the government, which had clamped down on protests last week and is often accused of being tin-eared, rushed to calm frayed nerves. “We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a statement. “These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change. It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channel these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action.”

The rape has also sparked a national debate in India on violence against women. Before her condition worsened in a New Delhi hospital last week, the girl told her mother that she didn’t want to die. But martyrdom, thrust upon her, has made her an unwitting symbol of India’s fight against sexual violence. Her death is a stark reminder of the hundreds of women who are awaiting justice in India, where one rape is reported every 20 minutes.

Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling Congress Party and India’s most powerful politician, also addressed the nation in a rare television appearance: “I appeal you to remain calm and help strengthen our collective resolve to fight the menace of violence against women,” she said. “Today all Indians feel as they have lost their own beloved daughter, their cherished sister, a young woman of 23 whose life full of hope, dream and promise was ahead of her.” The tragedy, Gandhi added, deepened the government’s “determination to battle the pervasive shameful social attitudes and mind-sets that allow men to rape and molest women and girls with such impunity.” Meanwhile, Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, who called the incident shameful for her as an administrator and a common citizen, had joined around 500 protesters at Jantar Mantar. However, she was forced to leave as angry protesters swirled around her. “Our hearts are burdened with grief and shame,” Dikshit had said earlier. “Not the moment for words or speeches but for deep reflection.”

(MORE: Brutal New Delhi Gang Rape Outrages Indians, Spurs Calls for Action)

Arun Jaitley, of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said it was time to introspect on how to improve existing laws and judicial processes and, most importantly, the “consciousness of the citizenry which creates a better environment where women can live with dignity.” Indian President Pranab Mukherjee called the victim a “true hero” and a “brave daughter of India” and urged everyone to resolve “this death will not be in vain.” Human-rights defenders too reacted to the Delhi tragedy. Human Rights Watch said the death of the victim was a “sobering reminder of the vast tragedy of sexual violence in India.”

On Saturday, a few hundred students from Jawaharlal Nehru University marched silently to the bus stop where the rape victim and her friend had boarded the bus on Dec. 16. They carried placards reading: “She Is Not With Us but Her Story Must Awaken Us.” The New Delhi tragedy certainly united Indians in their pursuit of justice for the victim. While murder charges and subsequent convictions would no doubt appease popular sentiment in the short run, the girl’s death seems likely to haunt India’s policymakers for years to come. That may be the only takeaway in the tragic death of an unknown girl in the world’s largest democracy. “Her greatest betrayal,” filmmaker Shekhar Kapur wrote on Twitter, “is that we will forget. Political system’s greatest hope is we will forget. Our only redemption is if we do not forget.”

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