By Angel Millar
India has been rocked by the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student just over two weeks ago on December 16. The young woman and her male friend got onto a Yadav Travels bus, at 9:30 PM, apparently unaware that the male driver and the five male passengers had stolen the bus, and were on a “joy ride.”
The couple were assured that the bus was going to their destination. However, the men set up them, beating the young man. They then also severely beat the female student, and took turns raping her, and violating her with an iron bar. Both victims were stripped naked, and thrown from the moving bus at the outskirts of Delhi.
Protests erupted across India, a country that suffers from a high level of sexual harassment and assault against women. Feminista India, which describes itself as “an online platform for all those who are committed to gender equality and justice,” reports that one women’s rights group has put out a statement saying, “The fact that cases of rape have a conviction rate of as low as 26% shows that perpetrators of sexual violence enjoy a high degree of impunity, including being freed of charges.”
“Silent witnesses to everyday forms of sexual assault such as leering, groping, passing comments, stalking and whistling are equally responsible for rape being embedded in our culture and hence being so prevalent today,” the statement continues, “We, therefore, also condemn the culture of silence and tolerance for sexual assault and the culture of valorising this kind of violence.”
Some protestors have called for the death penalty for the perpetrators, while others — including a number of Indian human rights groups — oppose the death penalty on principal, believing that the life of a human being should not be taken in any circumstance.
The police’s reaction to the rape and subsequent peaceful protests is deeply shocking and troubling, especially for a country that likes to decribe itself as “the world’s biggest democracy.” Protestors were attacked by the police, who used tear gas and water canons on the crowds. Such behavior reinforces the belief of many Indians that the police does not take the issue of sexual violence against women seriously.
The 23-year-old victim, who was flown to Mount Elizabeth hospital in Singapore after the brutal attack, “passed away peacefully” early Saturday. Dr. Kevin Loh, the chief executive of the hospital, said in a statement that her family and Indian Embassy officials were by her side at the time of her passing.
The six men have been booked by the police, and are expected to be charged on January 3. The Hindustan Times reports the accused as Ram Singh, 33 (a bus driver for two schools in Delhi and two in Noida, and a local “bully”), Mukesh Singh, 31, Pawan Gupta, 18, Vijay Sharma, 20, Akshay Kr Singh, 20, and a juvenile who cannot be named for legal reasons. It was the juvenile who reportedly called the couple onto the bus. He was also one of the most vicious attackers, assaulting the medical student even after she had lost consciousness.
Sonia Gandhi — named one of the world’s six most powerful women by Forbes, and President of the Congress Party — has described the assault as “brutal and bestial” and says that the victim’s “unbounded courage and indomitable spirit will never die and will never be forgotten.” She added that her spirit “strengthens our resolve to fight with all our might, and all the power of our laws and our administration for the safety and protection of all women of our country, and to ensure swift and fitting punishment for the perpetrators of such brutal acts.”
However, Gandhi’s soothing words about the “power of the administration” ring hollow in light of the treatment of the protestors and of other victims of sexual violence.
Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is described as being “livid” at the handling of the gang rape case, and is stepping up pressure on the government. BJP members have led demonstrations over the vicious attack. A BJP delegation has met with President Pranab Mukherjee, and BJP national vice president Shanta Kumar has also called for a special convening of India’s Parliament, to discuss the issue of violence against women. BJP leader Sushma Swaraj has also publicly condemned police action, noting that, besides the use of tear gas and water canons, “girls were baton-charged by police personnel.”