October 9, 2013
The 16th of December last year saw a crime committed in a moving bus in southern Delhi, a crime so heinous that the world watched in horror as local and international news agencies reported on its brutality. In what is now known as the Nirbhaya case, a twenty-three year old physiology student was gang-raped, sodomized, and left to die by the roadside.
Public outrage pervaded the country after the incident as citizens took to the streets demanding the harshest possible punishment for the attackers. Delhi, where this tragedy occurred, received the dubious distinction of being India’s “rape capital.” Owing to privacy laws for rape cases in India, media outlets bestowed the victim with several different positive names – Nirbhaya, or “Brave One,” by far the most popular.
Nirbhaya herself is no more, having succumbed to her injuries thirteen days after being raped. But her memory lives on – an unforgettable and painful reminder of the violence many women in India and elsewhere face on a daily basis.
The Nirbhaya case was put on a legal “fast track,” and four of the accused received the death sentence; another committed suicide in custody; an additional suspect, a juvenile at the time of the incident, was sentenced to three years in a correctional facility. While many across India hailed the decision as justice well served, the outcome sparked many questions. Human rights activists said the death penalty would not end crimes against women. Consternation was raised over the fate of the “juvenile,” who incidentally is of age now.
But the most burning question should be whether Indian society at large has simply absolved itself of responsibility in crimes against women, for despite the media attention given to this and similar cases, there seems to be little change in perception. Several have gone on record making controversial (possibly well-meaning albeit misguided) comments calling for women to dress modestly and not venture out unaccompanied at night. Yet very few would ask a man what he was wearing if he was sexually attacked. Why should a woman’s outfit and where she goes entitle others to her body?
There is no justification for infringing on the rights of a fellow being, and the sooner this is understood, the sooner there can be an end to pointless, patriarchal discourse on “loose women asking to be raped.” It is indeed a sorry state of affairs in a country where goddesses are venerated by faithful millions yet women have to suffer discrimination from the cradle to the grave.
If Nirbhaya’s legacy can teach us one thing, it is that a crime against women is a crime against humanity. Moreover, rape is not limited to India or women. It is essential, of course, for all victims to have the courage to speak out against oppressors and pursue all options, legal or otherwise, available to them. But what is also needed is for a given society to examine how it promotes attitudes that assign blame to the victims of such crimes, and make it easier for perpetrators to shield themselves at the expense of the vulnerable.
Everything else – speedy justice, death for rapists, sentencing of juveniles – is secondary. Nirbhaya bravely fought till the very end, and as testament to her courage, it is our duty to do so too.