India’s Gang-Rape Case: As Accused Go to Court, Unease Settles over Delhi

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Dar Yasin / AP

Indian women offer prayers for a gang rape victim at Mahatma Gandhi memorial in New Delhi, Jan. 2, 2013.

Five men charged with the rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman last month appeared in a closed hearing in Delhi on Monday after a judge cleared a packed and chaotic courtroom on concerns for the security of the accused. Before police filed for the proceedings to be held in camera only, members of a local bar association who had voted not to defend the men shouted down a lawyer who came forward to offer them counsel. Prosecutors say they have ample forensic evidence linking the five men to the attack, including traces of the victim’s blood on their clothing. Their trial is expected to take place in the coming weeks in a special fast-track court. The sixth man who has been arrested will be tried separately in a juvenile court.

The gang rape of a physiotherapy student on her way home from a movie on Dec. 16 has set India on edge for the past three weeks. Protesters in near continuous demonstrations and vigils in Delhi and other parts of country have demanded swift justice for the woman, who died of her injuries on Dec. 29, and her friend, who was also beaten on the private bus the pair were lured onto. As more details of the night emerge, a feeling of unease has settled over the Indian capital like the damp fog that demonstrators outside the court huddled in on Monday afternoon. School was out, so students were there in full force, soaking up scraps of sunshine on the unusually chilly winter day. “People’s malaise is deep-seated,” said Sarita Rai, a 23-year-old student. “The victim and her friend’s experience on that dreadful night has exposed Delhi-ites’ uncaring mind-sets. We put our self-interest above everything else.”

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

On Sunday, the U.K.’s Daily Mirror identified the victim by name in a quote from the father, a move which he has since said he did not authorize. The father told the Indian media that he only condoned the use of his daughter’s name in the renaming of India’s anti-rape law, which is expected to be revised. Authorities, at first slow to respond to the public’s grief, have rolled out a series of measures intended to fast-track the gang-rape case and improve safety for women in India. In a letter submitted on Monday to all chief justices, Chief Justice Altamas Kabir called for more fast-track courts to be set up to process pending cases of sexual assault. “Time has come for these cases to be dealt with expeditiously, lest we should fail in our endeavor to arrest the sharp increase of crimes of violence against women,” he wrote.

The upheaval of the past three weeks has exposed other deep fractures, raising difficult questions not only about the status of women in India but also about increasing violence, widening class divides and the delivery of justice in the world’s largest democracy. The fatal assault on Dec. 16 has been discussed by the public and treated by authorities as a sexual assault, which it was. But the ferocity of what happened behind the drawn curtains of a private bus that night — and the outrage that has ensued — makes the incident no longer just a case of sexual violence. The unhinged brutality of the culprits necessitates more than greater policing of night buses and GPS tracking systems. It requires a frank look at the social conditions that led six young men to lose their grip on humanity and reflection on why the reaction to the horrific crime has included lawyers’ refusal to give the accused their constitutional right of public defense. “It’s symptomatic of the fact that as a country, we do not have a culture of abiding by rule of law and respecting the law,” says Vrinda Grover, a human-rights lawyer based in New Delhi. “The link has to be made that if we did believe in rule of law, we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.”

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

Indeed, a disturbing firsthand account the incident given over the weekend by the victim’s friend underscores the broader problems that came into play that night. In an interview with Zee News, the only witness to the crime said that after being stripped and thrown out of the moving bus, he and the woman lay exposed and bleeding by the side of the road for nearly half an hour as multiple vehicles passed before somebody called the police to help them. “The victim’s friend echoed the insensitivity of India’s capital, where passersby simply look the other way when they find somebody in distress,” said Rajesh Garg, a 22-year-old student who was also outside the courtroom. “Nobody wants a brush with law.” The witness went on to say that once the call was made, police took more than half an hour to arrive on the scene, argued over who was responsible for the pair and eventually took them to a government hospital farther away than private hospitals in the vicinity. The police have rebutted that version of events, saying their vans reached the scene within a few minutes of receiving the call and that police refer all medico-legal cases, of which sexual assault is one, to government hospitals that are equipped to handle them.

Since Dec. 16, the Indian media’s coverage of rapes across the country has measurably increased, not due to a rise in incidence as much as a renewed focus on a crime that is widely under-reported and has not typically garnered much attention when it is. Indian dailies are now giving the stream of incidents wider and more prominent coverage, emphasizing the fact that the Dec. 16 attack, though particularly heinous, was far from an isolated event. As the five accused were driven to court on Monday, for instance, a 16-year-old girl in the northern city of Allahabad was in critical condition after being set on fire by a boy who allegedly attempted to rape her on Saturday. That same day in Delhi, the body of a 21-year-old woman was found; her father says she was gang-raped and murdered on her way home from work the previous evening.

(MORE: After New Delhi Gang Rape, Should the Culprits Be Executed?)

This steady stream of distressing cases has not prevented an equally steady flow of tone-deaf commentary from some of India’s most prominent politicians and religious and social leaders. Indian media reported that Asaram Bapu, a guru, said the victim was to blame for not reaching out to her attackers as “brothers” and “begged before them to stop.” In its recommendations to a government commission set up to better protect women in India, Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, an Islamist group, suggested “sober and dignified” dress for girls and the abolishment of co-education.

The real fix for what ails the Indian capital, says Delhi-based sociologist Dipankar Gupta, lies in better law enforcement. As Delhi has spread and incorporated villages from the region, the city has inherited a mix of communities with clan-based loyalties, rootless migrants and a population that can “touch the fruit of economic development but not quite grasp it.” It’s a combustible environment in which crime, unfortunately, has been allowed to flourish. “In India, our law is not enforced,” Gupta says. “We don’t pick up small crimes. We don’t pick up large crimes.” The only way that India can change for good, Gupta says, “is not by holding hands and singing songs but through the law. Once the law is applied systemically, it becomes a habit.”

MORE: New Delhi’s Women Problem: What Does It Take to Make a Society Safe?