India’s moment of truth as New Delhi gang rapists face execution

Published: December 29, 2012


Indian protesters hold candles during a rally in New Delhi late Dec. 29, 2012, after the death of a gang-rape victim from the Indian capital. Indian leaders appealed for calm and security forces headed off fresh unrest by locking down New Delhi after a student who was savagely gang-raped died in a Singapore hospital. Sajjad Hussain/Getty Images

Two weeks ago today, 23-year-old “Nirbhaya” was the apple of her parents’ eyes. She had recently qualified as a physiotherapist, was working as an intern in a Delhi hospital, and served as a role model to her two younger brothers.

Her parents, who had taken out loans to fund her studies, were a rare model Indian family in which the daughter came first and led the way.

This weekend, their hopes for her ended when she finally succumbed to the horrific injuries she suffered in a gang rape that shocked the country. Surgeons in Singapore, to where she had been flown for specialist treatment, said she had suffered “severe organ failure following serious injuries to her body and brain.”

By the time the chartered plane carrying her body arrived at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport last night, she had become known as “India’s daughter” and “the Braveheart” for her struggle to survive and her determination to see her rapists – now her murderers – prosecuted.

The savagery of the attack and the government’s weak response had provoked demonstrations throughout India, continuing yesterday, over the perceived indifference of the country’s ruling elite and its failure to protect women. “It’s a much bigger problem with our society,” said one protester, Aditi Gupta, 25, a commercial pilot. “We have not gone beyond the traditions of thousands of years in which women were inferior to men, and we have to change that.”

Nirbhaya’s ordeal began when she and her male companion boarded a private bus on Sunday Dec. 16, on their way home from a cinema in Saket, South Delhi, and were attacked by six men who were the only other passengers on board. The men initially abused her for being out at night with a man who wasn’t her husband. They then took turns to rape her and beat her with an iron rod, in an assault lasting more than an hour as the bus travelled, the atrocities inside hidden from onlookers by tinted windows and closed curtains.

After the victims both fell unconscious, they were thrown out of the bus on a flyover and left for dead. The bus driver is among those who have been arrested. When they arrived at Delhi’s Safdarjung government hospital, doctors found she had suffered severe internal injuries that could have been caused by the iron rod. In between operations to remove more than 90 per cent of her intestines, she managed to give two long interviews to police and a magistrate, and spoke to her family of her determination that her rapists be brought to justice.

She later suffered a heart attack and breathing difficulties before doctors decided to send her to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital, where her parents stayed at her bedside. Announcing her death, Kelvin Loh, chief executive officer of the hospital, said: “She 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.”

Yesterday her body, lying in a gold and yellow coffin selected by Indian diplomats, was driven in a hearse to the airport. The Indian government chartered an aircraft to fly the coffin back to India, along with members of her family, said T.C.A Raghavan, the Indian high commissioner to Singapore.

Dr. Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, said he was “deeply saddened” by her death but called for protesters to channel their anger into a “dispassionate debate” over how India can make women safer rather than pursue “sectional interests and agenda.”

“We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated. These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change,” he said. “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.”

Yesterday, armed police were bussed into the city centre to protect Delhi Gate, the public parkland in front of the government’s ministerial offices and the President’s House, along with the homes of prominent political leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leader. Sheila Dixit, Delhi’s Congress chief minister, arrived at the Jantar Mantar protest ground to show her support for demonstrators but was chased away by an aggressive mob.

Later, Gandhi directly addressed the protesters in a rare broadcast on state television, saying that as a mother and a woman she understood their grievances. “Your voice has been heard,” Gandhi said. “It deepens our determination to battle the pervasive and the shameful social attitudes that allow men to rape and molest women with such impunity.”

A legal counsellor who had comforted Nirbhaya’s parents while their daughter was in Safdarjung hospital in Delhi told the First Post news website that they were a tight-knit family.

“They had invested everything in their daughter,” she said. “She would have become a physiotherapist and gone on to support her family.”

Her father had remained hopeful that she would recover, and had asked politicians who were visiting to show their support whether they could help to find her a job when she recovered.

Her mother, however, was “shattered.”

“In a situation like this, you lose faith in God, in everything,” the counsellor added. “The mother was oblivious to who was coming or going.”

Official statistics show that Delhi is India’s “rape capital,” with 414 rapes in 2010 and more than 600 this year. Only one in three reported cases ends in a conviction. Many police officers believe that victims are to blame, and campaigners say victims are so afraid of the police that only one in 50 rapes is registered. Brinda Karat, a veteran Communist MP, said it was a shame that it took “a death of such a brave, healthy woman to wake India and wake up this government.”

Neeti Bhargava, 33, a banker, said although there had been many rapes and gang rapes in recent years, she had decided to protest because Nirbhaya’s ordeal was “one of the most heinous things Delhi has seen. It seems the government is not taking any action to appease the citizens right now,” she said. Since the attack and the protests that followed it, in which a policeman died and a journalist was killed, the government has announced a review of rape laws and measures to reduce sexual assaults. The six men alleged to have raped and killed Nirbhaya will face a fast-track court case in the next few weeks, accused of murder. If convicted, they will face execution.

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