Nirbhaya : The fearless victim of gang-rape

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On the 16th of December 2012, the entire country was struck dumb when the unconscious and brutally assaulted bodies of a 23 year old physiotherapy intern and her male friend were found by a lonely road in New Delhi. As the story unfolded, the entire nation it seemed, howled in unison.

Nirbhaya, (fearless, as she will always be known) hailed a chartered private bus with her boyfriend while coming back from a movie in the evening. The bus had 6 other passengers, one of which was a minor and who had offered the couple a ride. When the bus deviated from the conventional route, Nirbhaya’s friend got suspicious especially after he noticed that the doors of the bus were sealed shut. Except for the driver, the other 5 passengers, all of which were men, taunted the couple, attacked the boy and then knocked him unconscious with an iron rod. They then dragged the girl to the back of the bus and brutally raped her. The girl fought courageously, even biting three of the men but in the end she was overpowered. The truly horrifying part was when they used an iron rod for penetration and pulled it out so hard that only 5% of the girl’s intestines remained inside.

The 6 men then dumped the battered and unconscious bodies by the side of a road. It was later reported, that the driver tried to run over the girl’s body but the boy pulled her out of harm’s way just in time.

Nirbhaya, struggled for 13 days in the ICU. Although doctors reported that the internal bleeding had been stemmed, her vagina and internal organs were so badly injured that her condition remained critical. It is believed that when it was abundantly clear that she would not make it, she was transferred to a hospital in Singapore, but the victim never regained consciousness there and finally succumbed to her injuries on the 29th of December. The Prime Minister received her body when it was flown back and the body was then cremated on the 30th of December.

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While Nirbhaya fought for her life on the one hand, another battle was being waged between the citizens and the law enforcement of our nation. On the 21st, a massive protest was organised in Delhi, with thousands clashing with police forces, overturning cars, waving slogans and shouting for justice. This protest ended badly, when the protesters were lathi-charged and then teargassed.

A girl lights candles during a candlelight vigil for a gang rape victim who was assaulted in New Delhi, in Kolkata

Similar protests continued untrammelled throughout the country and in the capital. Thousands were protesting using social media and even more signed an online petition to demand justice for the victim. Politicians, actors, social activists took to openly criticising the existing laws and insisting on swift action to amend Section 376 (Penalty for Rape) of the Indian Constitution. In order to discourage people from rallying, metro stations were shut down and roads were blocked. A curfew was imposed on all assemblies larger than 5 in number (CrPC). The police resorted to oppressive measures to quell the people’s rage, using teargas frequently to flag the protests, which ironically only sparked national outrage.

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After Nirbhaya’s death, the nation wept as one with most people refusing to celebrate new year thereby resulting in probably the most grave conclusion to 2012.

While this one incident galvanized the nation to protect their women, serious questions were raised against the validity of Section 376. According to the current rape laws in India which have proven to be quite ineffective in punishing criminals- the sentence penalized by courts is a mere 7 years minimum, extending to a life sentence if deemed fit, along with fine. According to Part 2 (g) of Section 376, in the event of a gang-rape the minimum sentence is 10 years.

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A judicial committee headed by a former Chief Justice requested lawyers, activists, NGOs and citizens all over the county to suggests measures to make the country safer for women. The committee received an overwhelming response. A task force was separately consulted by the government to look into safety measures that need to be immediately adopted for the protection of women.

Before the 29th of December, the national debate was about the loophole that would be created if Section 376  was to be amended immediately. In the case of Nirbhaya, the amended law would no longer be applicable due to article 20(1) viz. Ex post facto laws. People were demanding death penalty for the 6 offenders and yet the very nature of 376 did not provide any possibility of a death sentence. Soon after the news of her death spread, the police tacked on a very vital and important offence to the chargesheet against the 6 men : Murder. Now the Vox Populi would be heard and those who were guilty could be sentenced to death, if it could be proved that the murder resulted from injuries that  were inflicted during the rape. In this case, there was no doubt.

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The Standing Committee summoned the Chief Commissioner soon after the incident and inquired about all the measures being taken to protect women in the city. Some of the reasons cited by the commissioner to explain their inability to prevent crime included- unfilled vacancies in the police, lack of policewomen and deficiency of vehicles to patrol the city.

On the side of the prosecution, Nirbhaya’s dying declaration to the police and the metropolitan magistrate will probably be their strongest argument along with the statement of her male friend. The chargesheet is expected to include the names of nearly 40 eye-witnesses. The bite marks on three of the men will also add up as evidence. The 6 men have now been charged with : IPC sections dealing with murder, gang-rape, sodomy, robbery, dacoity, attempted murder, destruction of evidence and abduction. The first fast-track court dealing with the 23 year old’s rape was inaugurated today. 5 of the culprits are currently remanded to Tihar Jail while the sixth, being a minor, is in juvenile custody. The hearing will be held tomorrow, on the 3rd of January 2013.

On the side of the defense, nearly 2500 advocates have boycotted the Nirbhaya case by refusing to defend the criminals. Most attorneys are claiming that the court will have to appoint  a lawyer itself – an act that has been lauded by the people because it intends to ensure a speedy trial without any delays in justice.

Many cynics have pointed out the involvement of politics in the aftermath of the rape. The ruling government was responsible for making the decision to fly Nirbhaya to Singapore, a decision widely condemned given how critical her condition was. The Opposition party has mostly gained traction because of several strategic moves : Like suggesting that Nirbhaya be awarded a posthumous Ashok Chakra (highest civilian honor) for her act of bravery. The Opposition party has also been the first to criticise the existing laws and demand stringent punishment against rape- namely chemical castration and death penalty. The ruling government has responded by putting forward the notion that 5 fast-track courts need to be opened by February 2013 dealing solely with sexual assaults and rape crimes. Honestly? I have no interest in the political agenda.

A very sceptical friend of mine remarked that whether this political furore public outcry is pressurising the government to change the law is hard to tell. What one can be sure of, is, that Nirbhaya suffered at the hands of 6 capricious,cruel, vile, evil men. That she fought valiantly, that she wanted to live till the last moment and that she died a hero. No legal action can give solace to people who have taken up her cause, nor can it provide condolence to her family. The only motive that this country can have, is that Nirbhaya was a resounding wake-up call that needs to be answered this instant. Whether it involves heightened police vigilance, teaching sons of this country to respect women, teaching women to arm themselves against men, or creating harsh laws to punish rapists- nothing can be done to diminish the anguish caused to Nirbhaya and to the people who loved her but everything can be done to prevent it from happening again. I found a wonderful quote on Nirbhaya that I’d like to end with:

“Weep because she died today. Celebrate because she woke us up”

A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest rally organised by various women's organisations in New Delhi

Courtesy : Wikipedia, Times of india, India Today, DNA, Reuters, Indiatimes, The Hindu and probably every national newspaper with a website. 

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