The fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student inside a bus in Delhi last December caused international outrage and prompted India to introduce stringent anti-rape laws. Author and journalist Nilanjana S Roy considers how the shocking case changed the country.
Coughing from the tear gas, shivering because the last round of spray from the water cannons had caught her full force, the college student who had stumbled out from the knot of demonstrators at Raisina Hill said, in between her retching: "They don't get it." This was on the first day of the protests in Delhi last December, which saw thousands of people - many of them students - come to Raisina Hill to ask their government for justice.
The woman who had sparked the protests was dead. She had gone to see The Life of Pi at a mall in the affluent Delhi neighbourhood of Saket; she and her male friend had taken a bus back home, and never reached her destination. The four men on that bus had attacked the couple, beaten the man savagely, raped the young woman and left her to die from her injuries, which were brutal and which had been inflicted on her over the unimaginably long course of an hour. The bus went through several police checkpoints, unchallenged.
The student coughed hard and said again, gesturing at the impassive sandstone buildings of North and South Block, the seat of government power in New Delhi: "They don't get it. None of their children use buses. They don't understand what we want."She came from a college on the outskirts of Delhi, and knew something about the lives of those in her generation who didn't have access to privilege, power, the insulation provided by cars and drivers or enough pocket money to cover the cost of taxis.
Over the next year, the distance between the people demonstrating on the roads that day and the many institutions of power would widen until the gap seemed more like an abyss.
The demonstration in Delhi was unusual because it brought women out into public spaces to protest against the everyday, casual violence that they faced in large parts of India. (In October that year, women in the neighbouring state of Haryana had howled their anger at the police, and recited their experiences of assault and violence, protesting against the rising incidence of rape in the state and the apathy of those in government.)
It was unusual because the students who stood there in the freezing weather were speaking to a city famous for its indifference and for the harassment and violence women, in particular, faced on its streets. They were there to say "enough", to demand, as so many hand-made placards put it, not protection but freedom. That was what they sang for the next few months as they wound through college campuses and through the bus route from Saket -an old protestor's chant about azaadi, freedom.
Kavita Krishnan, one of the faces of the Delhi protests, put it best in December: "We do not want to hear this defensive argument that women should only leave their homes for work. Poor things, what can they do? They are compelled to go out. We believe that regardless of whether they are indoors or outside, whether it is day or night and however they may be dressed - women have a right to freedom. And freedom without fear is what we need to protect and respect."Over the next few months, that chant was heard often. We want freedom in our homes, freedom on the streets, freedom in our bedrooms, freedom everywhere... freedom.
The pushback after the protests was fierce and almost immediate. From politicians, religious leaders and even police officers, came a rush of condemnation and arguments with the same thrust. Rapes were rising because women wanted too much freedom; because of the clash between old, traditional cultures and these new, Westernized attitudes. Rapes occurred because women wore the wrong clothes, went out "dented and painted" to the wrong places, did not respect limits.
Early in the new year, the Justice Verma Commission filed a report on women's safety that was a stirring manifesto demanding a long-delayed equality. Rape had nothing to do with honour. Institutions that were supposed to uphold law-and-order often protected the perpetrators of sexual assault; the Indian Penal Code was often patriarchal, putting women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community on a less than equal footing. The reforms suggested were concrete, detailed plans of action. When journalist Namita Bhandare put out a Stop Rape Now! petition, asking supporters to back the Verma Commission, she received 319,000 signatures.
The report was buried, as so many other demands for institutional change would be ignored or pushed aside over the year. The demand that marital rape be made a crime was turned down by parliament, on the grounds that this might destabilize the Indian home and family. An attempt to bring politicians to account if they had rape or sexual assault charges against them, as many did, was stalled. The institutions of power did what they had done back in December: they sealed themselves into their own bubble world, ignoring what was happening outside their doors.
But that December, a change was taking place. The protests slowed, and the demonstrations gradually wore themselves out, but the voices of the protestors remained strong and constant. The first signs of change began to show in the media, as issues once considered "women's issues" and relegated to the inside pages became mainstream on TV shows, and as the country began to discuss sexual violence across caste and class lines as well. In Delhi and elsewhere across the country, a sense of solidarity among women and progressive men had begun to grow; a new set of connections and networks had formed organically.
The demands for freedoms and for equality, united women and men across class lines, and across regional lines and even, to a degree, across caste lines. Where there had been a few feminist voices speaking in the mainstream, there were now scores of women: students, lawyers, activists, housewives, people brought together by the belief that it was time to change the way we lived.
In their personal lives, in their sexual choices, in their right to be treated with respect at workplaces, to move without fear on the streets, it was this azaadi, this freedom, that a new generation of Indians was determined to claim and they demanded, as a human right.