brutal gang-rape on a bus highlighted the routine abuse of Indian women
– and how the nation's surge to superpower status has left millions
behind struggling on the margins
Protesters at a
candlelit vigil in Kolkata after the cremation of the Delhi gang-rape
victim. Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty
It was a Sunday evening routine: heavy drinking, some rough,
rustic food, and then out in the bus, cruising Delhi's streets looking
for "fun". This particular Sunday, 16 December last year, was like many
others for Ram and Mukesh Singh, two brothers living in a slum known as
Ravi Das Colony. The "fun", on previous occasions, had meant a little
robbery to earn money for a few bottles of cheap whisky and for the
roadside prostitutes who work the badly lit roads of the ragged
semi-urban, semi-rural zones around the edges of the sprawling Indian
However, this Sunday evening was to end not with a "party", as one of the men later called their habitual outings, but with the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman
. The incident was to prompt a global outcry and weeks of protests in India
and to reveal problems often ignored by those overseas who are perhaps
too eager to embrace a heartwarming but simplistic narrative of growing
prosperity in the world's biggest democracy.
If sympathy lay,
naturally, with the 23-year-old physiotherapist who was the victim of
the attack, fascination focused on her assailants. These were not serial
sex criminals, psychopaths or brutalised men from the margins of
society. Their backgrounds were, perhaps more worryingly, like those of
tens of millions of Indian men.
Nor was Ravi Das Colony "the
underbelly" of the Indian capital, as one local newspaper described it. A
few hundred homes crammed on to a patch of land flanked by a road, a
temple and a recently restored medieval tomb, it lies like an outpost of
another, poorer India amid the relatively well-off suburbs to the south
of the city.
Like hundreds of other settlements across the
metropolis, all founded by squatting migrants, who have been drawn to
Delhi for decades, its single-room homes are overcrowded and noisy, but
its doorsteps are swept clean each night and, though police venture
rarely into its narrow lanes, order is maintained by the knowledge that
almost every act, even the most intimate, will be instantly known to the
For Ram and Mukesh Singh, 34 and 26 years old,
Ravi Das Colony had been home for most of their lives. Ram earned a
living as the driver of a bus that, albeit without the necessary
permits, carried schoolchildren.
Ram Singh, who led the attack, according to his fellow accused. He
died in police custody. The police said he killed himself; his family
Ram's brother, fired from a dozen jobs, intermittently drove a taxi.
two had grown up on a small homestead in Karauli, a remote eastern part
of the state of Rajasthan, five hours by train from the capital. They
attended a local school with few facilities and an often absent teacher,
playing in the fields and dried riverbeds. They came to Delhi in 1997.
India was then beginning to boom after the reforms of the early 1990s
injected a new capitalist energy into the sclerotic,
quasi-socialist-quasi-feudal economy, and their landless labourer
parents decided to try their luck in the capital.
Percentage of Indian population living in urban areas
But if life in the city was better than the brutal poverty of the
village, the improvement was only marginal. After a decade, their father
and mother returned to Karauli and the brothers stayed on in a one-room
brick home, brutally hot in the heat of the summer, freezing in winter.
Ram, a slim, dark, small man, married a woman with three children by
another man. She died of cancer shortly afterwards without bearing him a
child of his own. After her death, he started drinking heavily and
fighting. When he drove his bus into a lorry, he damaged an arm
permanently. (Ram later appeared on one of India's hugely popular
reality shows, angrily accusing his former employer of refusing him
compensation for his injury. The bus owner accused him of being
negligent and rash.)
Though they left local girls alone, the Singh
brothers were known among their neighbours for drunkenness, petty crime
and occasional, unpredictable violence. The younger brother, Mukesh,
was personable, if impressionable, according to teenagers in the
neighbourhood. "He was fine on his own but different when he was with
his brother," one said, speaking a few days after the incident that
would make the pair, if only for a short time, globally infamous.
Ratio of Indian children aged under six
Ram Singh spent the afternoon of 16 December visiting relatives
elsewhere in the city, returning home at about 5pm. The day before, a
17-year-old drifter who had worked with him a year previously as an
assistant on his bus had come to collect a debt of 6,000 rupees (£70).
The money was not ready and, with little else to do, the teenager had
stayed on, sleeping on the bare floor of the small house. Also staying
was another young man, 28-year-old Akshay Thakur, who eked out a living
helping Ram Singh on his bus, and had no home of his own.
India and Pakistan income, GDP per capita
Both the 17-year-old, known as Raju, and Thakur had their own
troubled histories. Their paths had taken them through a side of India
that has less to do with the emerging economic powerhouse of
international repute and more to do with a tenacious, older India riven
by conflict, poverty, chaos and random violence.
The eldest of
five children, Raju was born to a destitute day labourer with mental
health issues and his wife in a village 150 miles east of Delhi, in the
vast northern state of Uttar Pradesh which has 180 million inhabitants
and socio-economic indicators often worse than those in sub-Saharan
Africa. As in rural Rajasthan, where the Singh brothers came from, women
in the countryside of Uttar Pradesh suffer systematic sexual harassment
and often violence. Rape
is common and gang rape frequent. Victims are habitually blamed for
supposedly enticing their attackers. Many are forced to marry their
assailants; others kill themselves rather than live with the social
stigma of being "dishonoured". Police rarely register a complaint, let
When only 10 or 11 years old, Raju was sent
from his village home for Delhi. Though for some time he intermittently
sent his parents money, they had no idea where he was. According to
Raju's statement to police, the country boy had found food, shelter and a
meagre wage as a dishwasher and server in a cheap dhaba
roadside foodstall, in a rough neighbourhood called Trilokpuri, on the
margins of the city's sprawl across the northern bank of the stinking,
if still holy, river Yamuna.
Created as a new home for slum
dwellers cleared from Delhi's old city in the 1970s, Trilokpuri is
another zone of transition, still halfway between the urban and the
rural, where buffalo graze amid plastic bags and rubbish in the
wastelands that separate new, poorly built cement blocks of flats.
Age of Indian population
After six months at a stall, sleeping below the tables and eating
leftovers, Raju found work as a milkman's assistant before returning to
washing dishes, this time at a dhaba
serving Delhi's favourite street food of chole bhatura
spiced chickpeas. Finally he pitched up at a third establishment where
the owner remembers a hardworking, slight and personable young man liked
by the hundreds of customers, mainly rickshaw drivers, who each day
paid 20 or 30 rupees for a bowl of beef curry with thick, rustic bread.
Delhi police inspect the bus believed to be the vehicle in which the
woman was gang-raped. The suspects tried to run her over after throwing
her off the bus. Photograph: Strdel/AFP
Raju earned 3,000 rupees a month but left in the summer of 2011 after Ram Singh, who was a regular at the dhaba
asked him to work as an assistant on his bus. After a few months he
moved on again, taking a job as a cleaner at a bus station in the south
of Delhi where he slept in empty vehicles but remained friends with the
man from Ravi Das Colony. He had stopped sending money home and his
parents, back in his remote native village, believed he was dead.
fourth man sharing the food and cheap whisky in the Singh brothers'
home in Ravi Das Colony that Sunday evening was Akshay Thakur, who also
came from a distant village deep in a desperately poor and conservative
part of India. He, too, had left his home, 80 miles from Patna, the
state capital of Bihar, for Delhi, though his journey was less direct,
taking him five years and a variety of poorly paid, often physically
arduous jobs such as working in brick kilns and selling illegal
home-brewed "country liquor" before he ended up replacing Raju, working
on Ram Singh's bus.
The four men were thus all representative of a
substantial element of contemporary Indian society. (The median age in
India is 25, with two-thirds of the 1.2 billion population under 35.)
They were semi-skilled and poorly educated, like so many other products
of the country's failing education systems. They were migrants from the
country to the town – four of the millions of individuals who over
recent decades have converted an almost entirely rural country into an
increasingly urbanised one. They were unmarried in a part of India where
men outnumber women and gender imbalances are worsening. They were
drinking in a city known for high levels of alcohol abuse. There was
nothing very extraordinary about them. Yet within hours they would
commit acts that would prompt outrage across the planet.
8pm, after the "party" had been going for nearly three hours, Ram Singh
was called by the owner of the bus he drove for a living, and asked to
buy a cylinder of cooking gas. He turned to his friends and, according
to Raju's statement to the police, said: "Let's go out and have some
Delhi's sclerotic roads. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
The men headed for the bus, which was parked 100 metres or so away on
a side road, the statement says. On the way, they called on friends in
the slum to join them. Two did: Pawan Gupta, a 19-year-old fruit seller
and student, and Vinay Sharma, 20, who worked part-time in an expensive
gym as a cleaner-cum-instructor. Both lived with their parents and had
marginally more stable backgrounds than the others but were still far
from exceptional in any obvious way.
Gupta, a relative said, had
grown up in a temple in the remote rural town of Basti in north-eastern
Uttar Pradesh, another desperately poor part of India. He had given up
further education to come to Delhi to help his parents run their fruit
stall. Still only 20, he was hoping to go to college. He had "fallen in
with the wrong sort", a relative said.
Sharma, the son of an
airport cleaner, was doing a distance-learning college course in
communications and gave his parents the rest of the 5,000 rupees he
earned each month at the gym catering to Delhi's elite a few miles away.
Such a stark proximity between the very wealthy and the less well-off,
between the aspirant and the arrived, is also typical of the new India.
by Mukesh Singh, the bus first headed north-east, along Delhi's choked,
congested inner ring road. The city has two such routes, both
haphazardly planned and often gridlocked. The men pulled up at
designated bus stops, where one of them – Raju, according to police –
called out for anyone wanting a ride to Nehru Place, a shopping centre
and office complex a few miles away. It was already dark and cold.
Badri Nath, left, father of the gang-rape victim, and her brother
Gaurav at a press conference. Photograph: Mail Today/India Today/Getty
After about 10 minutes and several attempts to attract custom at
different bus stops, a carpenter on his way home from work got on. Ram
Singh shut the doors immediately behind him, and his brother accelerated
away. Within minutes, the man had been beaten and robbed of his phone
and 1,400 rupees, then dumped from the moving vehicle. He did not bother
reporting the crime.
By 8.30pm, after another few abortive
attempts to lure passengers aboard, the bus pulled up at a stop in a
suburb called Munirka. To make the trap more effective, Sharma, Gupta
and Thakur sat on different seats at the front of the vehicle, posing as
passengers, and visible from outside through the open doors. Raju stood
on the step of the bus. "For Palam crossing and Dwarka sector one," he
Work like a horse, live like a saint
Dwarka and the ragged reality of India's journey to prosperity is very
obvious. A narrow flyover takes a stream of vehicles over a railway
where packed trains pass slowly between strips of wasteland strewn with
rubbish, faeces, and thin-ribbed cows. Everywhere there are people:
labourers streaming from their makeshift huts to work on a series of
unfinished, skeletal luxury flats that will be sold to the newly
wealthy; women buying or carrying baskets of vegetables; schoolchildren
in neat uniforms; young men doing little except play with their mobile
phones; some beggars. Above soar billboards, advertising a conference
with a "real estate guru", a "women's day" at a local gym where
"cut-price classes" will "make him love your curves", and one poster
composed of vast portraits of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and the
former president APJ Abdul Kalam, the "father" of India's nuclear
One of the most striking elements of the Delhi
gang-rape case is the similarity in the backgrounds of the victim and of
her killers. The family of "J" – it is illegal under Indian law to name
a rape victim – were, like those of her assailants, from close to the
bottom of India's still tenacious caste hierarchy. Her father, Badri
Nath, like the Singh brothers' father, had left his remote ancestral
village for the capital in search of a better life. In 1982, a bus took
him from his village on the banks of the Ganges in the middle of India's
northern plains to a station where he bought a ticket for an overnight
train to a city he had never seen. "I didn't want to leave," he said
But he had little choice. Badri Nath was one of four
brothers. The two eldest had been educated but funds were short and
insufficient for Badri Nath to finish his schooling. His father was the
only son of a man who himself was one of four sons. The family land,
once enough to support a number of families, had thus been divided so
many times that it was insufficient to provide a living even for one.
Three years after he left the fields behind, his wife, who married when
she was only 15, came to join him in Delhi.
Waiting for a bus in Delhi in front of an ad for the city. If life
in the capital is better than village poverty, the gains for many have
been marginal. Photo: Kevin Frayer/AP
In the city, Badri Nath managed to keep food on the table and a roof
over the head of his young family. This was no mean achievement. In the
mid-1980s, the Indian economy was still weak. The country was apparently
locked into the "Hindu growth rate". Communal violence was rife,
opportunities few. He started polishing pressure cookers, then worked in
a washing machine factory. A sympathetic boss gave him money for a
small plot of land in what was then the semi-rural suburb of Dwarka and
he built a very modest, cramped two-room home there. He took on a second
job as a night watchman in a hospital.
Slowly, over the years,
the district developed. Electricity was connected, though problems with
water supply never seemed to be resolved. More and more people flowed in
from the rural areas. A decade passed, then another. Dwarka turned into
a small town, then a small city, one of the many that fuse with the
metropolis of Delhi itself. Economic development, accelerating steadily
as the years passed, meant a newly monied middle class, and new airlines
to take them to business meetings and beaches.
expanded. New workers were needed, and Badri Nath, through a friend,
found work as a loader, emptying planes he would never fly in of baggage
as they came in from Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Kolkata or elsewhere. He
signed up for two eight-hour shifts, each one earning 100 rupees. He
left home at 1pm and got home at 6am. The journey to work took 15
minutes in an unlicensed taxi, often vehicles driven by chauffeurs
making some money on the side after dropping their employers off at the
airport. Getting home took half an hour in an overcrowded bus.
heard once that to escape poverty you need to work like a horse and live
like a saint," Badri Nath said later. "That is what I have tried to do
all my life."
Interactive: the events of 16 December 2012. Click on the image to launch it
His first child was a boy who died after three days. In India, sons
are prized to the point where they receive not only scarce financial
resources for their education but also better food. Female foetuses are
selectively aborted so frequently that Delhi and the states around it
suffer a massive demographic imbalance between men and women. Badri Nath
thought differently, however. "My wife was so sad when we had another
child, we did not care if it was a boy or a girl. We just wanted it to
survive," he said. The child was J, and she was followed over eight
years by two boys.
All three children went to the local government
school, but it was J who stood out. "She just needed to look at
something once and she remembered it," said Badri Nath. Her textbooks
lined a wall in the small home. To give her space to study and sleep,
the rest of the family ate and slept in the second bedroom, covering a
bed with a plastic sheet to convert it into a dining table.
only thing that interested her was studies," her father remembered. She
covered the wall of her room not with Bollywood posters or pages from
magazines but diagrams laboriously copied from her textbooks. Her
handwriting and written English were soon the best in the family – her
parents still conversed in the Bhojpuri language of their part of Uttar
Pradesh – and it was J who filled in all the myriad administrative
documents that blight every Indian's dealings with government. If there
was any time left after studying, she helped neighbour's children in
exchange for a few rupees or watched television on the family's cable
She had wanted to be a doctor, ideally a neurosurgeon,
but opted instead for the more modest, and more affordable, ambition of
physiotherapist and found a college in the northern city of Dehradun
where she could qualify after a four-year course. To raise the
40,000-rupee annual fee, her father sold part of his land in his village
and mortgaged the rest. To cover living expenses – a similar sum – J
found a job in a call centre in the city.
It was through a mutual
friend at the call centre that she met Awindra Pandey, the 28-year-old
information technology specialist who was with her on the night of the
attack. The two were "just friends", J's father said, though he often
spoke to the young man on the telephone and liked him. There was no
question of the pair marrying as they came from different sides of what,
in India, remains an unbridgeable gulf.
Pandey's family were from
the upper castes and his father was a wealthy lawyer. He had a good
salaried job – only a quarter of working Indians are employed in the
formal sector – as an IT specialist. But if there would never have been a
match, there could at least be companionship. The couple had been
seeing each other for over a year and had even been on a trip to the
hills together. They had not seen each other for more than month however
before the attack. It was J, back in Delhi to look for an internship as
a physiotherapist, who called her friend to suggest a trip to the
cinema. Pandey picked her up from home and they travelled to Saket Mall,
an upmarket shopping centre in the south of Delhi, where they watched
Life of Pi at a multiplex, leaving at about 8.30pm. They walked out past
the western-branded clothes shops and supermarkets, the new coffee
bars, the car rank where drivers pull up in imported 4x4s, which they
then load with shopping as their employer settles on the back seats,
past the uniformed security guards, into the darkness of the evening,
and started looking for transport home. This was a different India from
that which J's father had known.
Women light candles in memory of J at an impromptu shrine in Delhi.
The brutal crime triggered unprecedented protests, even as subsequent
rapes pushed the student's death off the front pages. Photograph: EPA
Delhi's public transport is grossly inadequate at the
best of times. If the reforms of the 1990s unleashed the power of the
private sector, for good or ill, they did little to bolster the public
sector. Since, public services and institutions, under increasing
pressure, have not just failed to keep pace but have often in effect
collapsed. So even a new and expanding metro in Delhi has barely made a
difference in the seething city. As ever in India, where the state
("frugal innovation") takes over. Unlicensed
buses are broadly tolerated, or at least allowed to run, after paying a
small bribe to avoid a fine.
On this Sunday night there were no
official Delhi Metropolitan Corporation buses to take J and Pandey back
to Dwarka. No auto-rickshaw wanted such a distant fare either. The
couple convinced one driver to take them two miles from the mall to
another bus stop, at Munirka, where they hoped to find more options to
get back to Dwarka so Pandey could see J safely home.
Pandey's statement to police, the couple had been waiting only a few
minutes when the bus driven by Mukesh Singh pulled up with the juvenile
leaning from the open door calling out its destination. "Where are you
?" he asked the woman, using the colloquial Hindi for elder sister, police statements say.
couple got in and sat down, falling for the ruse that the men posing as
passengers had prepared. "How long will it take?" Pandey asked. "Not
too long," replied Ram Singh. His brother, Mukesh, was still at the
wheel. One of the other men, still playing his role, asked the same
question. "Let's get going," Ram Singh said as his assistant Thakur took
20 rupees as a fare from the couple. The bus moved off.
minutes, as the bus drove along Delhi's outer ring road in the direction
of the international airport, the atmosphere darkened.
you doing out roaming around with a girl on her own?," Ram Singh asked
Pandey, according to the accounts given to investigators by both the
juvenile and the man. "None of your business," the young IT engineer
answered. The two men faced off. Ram Singh threw a punch. Then events
moved very fast. Ram Singh and the others wrestled Pandey to the floor.
One shouted: "The rod, [get] the rod." As the woman screamed for help,
banging on the bus's curtained windows, a metal bar kept in the bus was
passed back. Blows rained down on the helpless man, now pinned between
two seats. He was stripped. "I was trying very hard to get to her but
they had me nailed down," Pandey later told a magistrate.
Mukesh Singh drove the bus through the heavy traffic, Thakur and Ram
Singh had dragged the woman to its back seats, according to the men's
statements to police after their arrest. "They beat her and pressed a
hand over her mouth and tore her clothes off," the juvenile's statement
"Ram Singh first raped her, the girl kept shouting, and one
by one all of us [raped her] and [Ram Singh] and the rest of us bit her
body." Medical reports reveal bite marks were found on the woman's
breasts, arms and genitals. J fought back, biting and scratching but the
petite young woman had little chance.
Outside the bus, the
landmarks of south Delhi passed: a temple, a flyover, a busy road
junction. At Mahipalpur, a scruffy collection of cheap hotels and
restaurants near the airport, they turned the bus round, heading back
into the city. It was 9.34pm, according to CCTV images. The vehicle had
passed through three police checkpoints, where officers from the city's
overstretched, badly paid, badly trained and badly equipped force stood
supposedly keeping an eye on passing traffic.
As the bus headed
back into the city, the attack continued. Ram Singh exchanged places
with Mukesh who had been driving. His brother then took his turn to rape
"We tried to push our [penises] into her mouth. We
also tried to [sodomise] her," the juvenile later told police. His
statement, corroborated by the account given by the victim to medical
staff, does not mention the assault with the iron bar the woman
described. Her medical examination – and the retrieval of two
blood-stained rods in the bus – confirm that it was penetration by this
that caused massive damage to her genitals, uterus and intestines.
girl was shrieking and shouting so much. Ram Singh put his hand inside
her and pulled out flesh. The girl lost consciousness and started
bleeding," the juvenile told police. Her friend later described how,
naked and badly injured himself, he heard the men talking. One said that
he thought "she was dead". Another, possibly Thakur, suggested throwing
them out of the bus.
By this time – at exactly 9.54pm, according
to images recorded by cameras – the bus had turned around once again and
had returned to Mahipalpur. The men dragged their two semi-conscious
victims, by the hair according to police documents, to the rear doors of
the vehicle but these were jammed shut so they pushed the couple
through the front doors. An attempt appears to have been made to run
them over, but Pandey, though badly injured, was able to drag the woman
out of the way. The bus then disappeared into the traffic and back into
When they reached Ravi Das Colony, the men parked the
bus down a nearby alley. With water fetched from one of the colony's two
standpipes, they sluiced it down with water to get rid of the blood,
faeces and other evidence. They lit a fire, burning the clothes of the
couple, except for the man's Hush Puppies shoes, which they kept.
six then went back to the Singh brothers' home, where the juvenile made
tea. Ram Singh divided up the results of the night's robberies,
distributing credit and bank cards, cash and mobiles, jewellery and the
shoes. Gupta got a wristwatch and 1,000 rupees, the juvenile was given
1,100 rupees and a bank card. "Keep it carefully," Ram Singh told him.
"We'll take out the money later."
There was a brief argument,
overheard by neighbours. The two men, Gupta and Sharma, who lived
elsewhere in the colony, went back to their houses. The others watched
television and then slept, investigators say.
is, like Dwarka, Trilokpuri and Ravi Das Colony itself, another place
of transition, another scrawled note on the margin of the story of
India's growth. Supposedly in Delhi's "green belt", it had once been
where sultans had hunted. Only a few decades ago it was still a small
village, surrounded by scrubby, rocky hills and small pools of water
where buffaloes bathed in the summer, submerged up to their necks to
fight the heat.
Now it is a noisy crossroads where the road to
Delhi's airport joins a six-lane highway leading to the satellite city
of Gurgaon, favoured by big international companies. Scores of
unlicensed cheap hotels and restaurants cater to the passing trade of
late-night arrivals from overseas, commuters heading in or out of the
metropolis, lorry drivers and well-off teenagers driving their fathers'
fast cars looking for a plate of chilli chicken at 5am.
minutes after their attackers had driven away, J and her friend lay,
drifting in and out of consciousness, on a narrow strip of wasteland
beside a slip road of the highway. A few hundred metres away, across
open ground, the sign of a French-owned budget hotel under construction
shone in the darkness. On the other side of the road, beyond the
flyover, was a row of hotels. Lying in the gravel, bleeding heavily,
they were nonetheless visible to the traffic streaming past. Vehicles
slowed, almost stopped and then accelerated away, Pandey later
Eventually, as ever in India, a small crowd gathered,
though no one wanted to take responsibility for actually helping the
naked and injured couple lying on the ground. Finally, according to
police documents, an off-duty worker on the nearby toll highway saw the
bystanders, stopped, and alerted his control room, which notified the
police. A constable arrived in a patrol car, then another. One fetched a
sheet from a nearby hotel to cover the couple. There was a brief
discussion over which police district was responsible for dealing with
the situation. Then Pandey helped J into a police car and was driven
Police fire water cannon at protesters demonstrating at Delhi's
India Gate over the government's reaction to the gang-rape. Photograph:
An hour later, a policeman called J's father to tell him his daughter
had been in an "accident" and was in a hospital in south Delhi. A
friend with a motorbike took him across the city to Safdarjung hospital,
one of Delhi's biggest public medical facilities. He found her lying on
a stretcher, covered by a green blanket.
"I thought she was
unconscious but when I laid my hand on her forehead she opened her eyes.
She was crying. I told her: 'It'll be alright, beta
had been appalled at extent of the woman's injuries. They attempted to
remove the most damaged parts of her intestines and any infection,
cleaning as much as possible of what was left and doing whatever else
they could to keep her alive. But there was little hope, they all knew.
One found her father, who had been waiting outside the operating
theatre, and told him that it was unlikely his daughter would survive
more than a few hours.
Through the morning, police worked at
tracing the white bus that Pandey, badly hurt but still conscious, had
been able to describe to them. They started checking CCTV footage from
the hotels clustered around Mahipalpur. One noticed a bus with the name
Yadav painted on the side, which passed the crossroads twice an hour
before the couple had been reported. They found its owner, who had
bribed local officials after being repeatedly caught running unlicensed
fleets, and got an address for Ram Singh.
At Ravi Das Colony they
first saw the bus, then Singh sitting inside. He ran but was caught. His
T-shirt and shoes were bloodstained. The bus had clearly been washed
recently. Very quickly, Singh admitted his involvement in the attack,
even producing two iron rods, covered in dry blood, from a compartment
in the bus's cabin. By the end of the week, five of the six were in
custody. Mukesh Singh had been detained on his way to Karauli, where he
hoped he could hide in the remote village where he had grown up. Gupta
and Sharma were found at their family homes in Ravi Das Colony. Raju was
picked up at the bus station where he slept. Thakur was found when he
arrived at his parents' home in remote Bihar. By then, news of the
incident was not just leading every bulletin in the city, but across
It had long been known that Delhi had a problem with sexual
violence. Statistics backed up anecdotal evidence. For years, every few
days, the media reported a serious sexual assault, though usually
tucked away on the metro pages and recounted in a few dry paragraphs.
Every few weeks there would be an attack, often a gang-rape. Some would
receive more attention. But after the expressions of concern by police
officers and Delhi's elected officials the issue would soon disappear.
Few of the incidents ended in charges, almost none in a trial. The
conviction rate for rapes languished around the 25% mark.
to India's National Crime Records Bureau, registered rape cases in
India had increased by almost 900% over the past 40 years, to 24,206
incidents in 2011, while murder cases had gone up by only 250% over 60
years, and incidences of riot had actually dropped. Delhi, with its population of 15 million, registered 572 cases of rape
compared with 239 in Mumbai, India's commercial capital, with its
bigger population, in 2011. There were just 47 reported in Kolkata.
no one knows quite what proportion of attacks these figures represent.
Some activists say one in 10 rapes are reported; others say it is
probably more like one in 100. One poll, in 2011, found that nearly one in four Indian men admitted to having committed some act of sexual violence
. Two-thirds of the sample came from the capital.
there is the daily low-level harassment in public places, simply
accepted as part of life in the city. Suggestive comments and wandering
hands on buses, photographing or filming with phones, being followed or
even chased were, polls showed, regularly encountered by 80% of women
in the city. According to one survey, this molestation – euphemistically
known as "Eve-teasing" – was seen as harmless by a majority of men in
Delhi. An investigation by Tehelka, a campaigning magazine, found that
the policemen supposed to investigate "Eve-teasing" and rape alike
blamed women for "leading men on".
A high proportion of Delhi's
police are recruited from the surrounding rural areas and the big, poor
conservative states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Rajasthan.
Their attitudes inevitably reflect those of their home communities.
These are very similar to Karauli, Aurangabad, Trilokpuri and the other
places where J's attackers had grown up or spent many years. Only two
months before the Delhi attack, a spate of rapes and gang-rapes in
Haryana prompted some debate in the media. Local politicians attributed
the wave of attacks to women behaving immodestly or the amount of junk
food young men were eating. One called for the age of marital consent to
be lowered. The United Nations pointed out that this would do little to
counteract the rape of teenagers. These states are also the parts of
India where gender imbalance owing to selective abortion is worst.
Violence to women starts before birth, campaigners often say.
J's case was exceptional, standing out from the mundane background hum
of sexual violence in northern India. The attack was of almost
unprecedented brutality, committed by complete strangers on a Sunday
evening, on the streets of Delhi itself. J was out with a friend
watching a film. She was not in a village, nor was she working in a
nightclub. She was thus seen as representative in a way that other
victims, rightly or wrongly, had never been. Very soon she had been
dubbed "Delhi's daughter" in the media, and thus neatly slotted into one
of the three legitimate categories allowed to women in India: mother,
spouse or child.
Within hours of the news of the assault breaking,
protesters were on the streets. The reaction of India's political elite
merely fuelled the anger. No parliamentarians joined the marchers.
Instead, the government invoked colonial-era laws to ban demonstrations,
shut metro stations and deployed thousands of policemen to guard the
president's residence, the parliament building and the homes of senior
ministers. Central Delhi became a citadel, defended by khaki-clad men
, the iron-tipped bamboo staves also inherited, like
the attitudes of the ministers and top bureaucrats, from former
imperial overlords. Finally, after a week, the prime minister, Manmohan
Singh, and Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party, made
brief televised speeches expressing concern and sympathy, which were
dismissed as too little, too late by protesters. The anger grew.
25 December, having held on to consciousness for long enough to twice
give a crucial statement to investigators, J, still in Safdarjung
hospital in the south of Delhi, began to lose her grip on life.
father, Badri Nath, said: "During the evening, maybe 9pm, she saw me
standing outside the intensive-care unit. She turned to look at me and
gestured for me to come. She asked me if I had eaten. I said yes. Then
she said: 'Dad, go to sleep, you must be tired.' I patted her head.
She said: 'You should get some sleep,'" he remembered. "She took my hand and kissed it. She never opened her eyes again."
days later, J died in a clinic in Singapore, where she had been moved
as no facilities for treatment that would even give her a chance of life
existed in India. Her body was brought back to India, cremated in a
public facility in Dwarka and then, as is traditional, her ashes were
carried by her family to the banks of the Ganges, near the village that
Badri Nath had left 30 years before, and scattered on the river.
night of her death the angry protests that had been beaten back by riot
police in central Delhi and the marches in other cities demanding
security for women in India gave way to demonstrations of a different
type. There was grief, even shame. At 7pm, candles were lit across the
vast country: on Juhu Beach, where Mumbai meets the Indian Ocean; in the
centre of the bustling southern cities of Hyderabad and Bengaluru; at
the statue of Gandhi in chaotic, poverty-stricken Lucknow, 1,000 miles
to the north.
In Delhi itself, though a city full of temples,
mosques and churches, scores gathered at an impromptu shrine set up at
the bus stop where J had waited for a lift home 13 days before. Under
the hastily printed posters reading "You Inspired Us All" and "No to
Violence to Women", they too lit their candles. "We are feeling very
sad. We are feeling very angry. Now we hope our lives will change," said
Archana Balodi, a 24-year-old student. One poster read: "She is not
dead, she has just gone to a place where there is no rape."
Jantar Mantar, an 18th-century observatory that is a traditional site
of protests in the centre of the city, crowds gathered. J's death meant
her attackers would now be charged with murder, and thus could face
hanging. This became the cry that united the otherwise diverse and
disorganised demonstrators. "Hanging them is not enough. They should be
tortured like she was," said Srishdi Kumar, a 16-year-old schoolgirl.
"Then maybe there will be a change. Why not?"
Eight months later,
at the conclusion of the trial of her killers, it is difficult to argue
that J's ordeal and death has made much difference in India, at least so
far: the rapes and sexual assaults that are now highlighted daily by
the Indian media act simply as a reminder of how widespread violence to
women is in the country.
The fierce debate in the weeks after the
attack – setting conservatives who blamed westernisation against
liberals blaming reactionary sexist and patriarchal attitudes – has
faded. A package of laws increasing punishments for sexual assault and
redefining a range of offences may do some good, campaigners concede, if
enforcement is simultaneously improved, but dozens of men accused of
rape remain members of local and national parliamentary assemblies. The
special funding released by the government for measures to enhance the
security of women has so far gone unspent. Few are confident that gender
training for the underfunded police will have much effect. Nor are the
new "fast-track courts" – such as the one, only a few hundred metres
from the mall where J and Pandey watched Life of Pi, where her attackers
were tried – solve the problems of the criminal justice system. "It is a
few weeks of outrage against hundreds of years of tradition," MJ Akbar,
a veteran commentator, said. But this may not be so. The concern is
that it is the change itself that is generating the violence.
trial has now ended. Ram Singh, the ringleader in the attack, hanged
himself in his cell in Tihar prison in mid-March. J's family angrily
cried that they had been denied justice. "It is wrong that he should be
able to choose the timing of his death," said her brother. The other
four adults who have been convicted are likely to be hanged after all
appeals are exhausted. No one is quite clear what will happen to Raju,
the juvenile, though he may have to be released after three years' time
in a juvenile reform home.
Badri Nath, his wife and two sons have
now moved to a new flat with running water, electricity and two
bedrooms, a gift from the Delhi authorities. The family has also
received "compensation payments", in the cold language of the
bureaucrats, worth £40,000: more than Badri Nath could have ever hoped
to have earned, let alone saved, in his working life. His sons are
getting coveted government jobs. In a recent interview with the
Guardian, he repeated one phrase: "I console myself by saying she was a
good soul, set free in death."
Outside in the narrow street, a
tanker had just arrived to deliver water. Dwarka's piped supply is still
unreliable. A crowd had formed and neighbours argued as they jostled
with buckets. A woman laughed. A motorbike clattered past. A vegetable
seller shouted for custom. There was a short burst of music from a tinny
radio. But the noise of an evening in a working-class Delhi
neighbourhood barely reached the small basement flat where a 53-year-old
man sat on his daughter's bed, and it was very quiet.