The young woman who, much against her will, briefly became India’s most famous citizen was cremated in the pre-dawn cold near her home in Delhi on Sunday, with senior politicians standing beside her shattered family.
The 23-year-old student died Saturday morning of injuries sustained during a savage gang rape carried out by six young men on a moving bus on December 16. She had been flown to Singapore for treatment two days before, a controversial decision made by the central government, and on Saturday night a state aircraft was sent from Delhi to fly her body home.
Her family was met at the airport by Sonia Gandhi, chief of the ruling Indian National Congress, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The government appears belatedly to have realized that, in a country where violence against women is so commonplace as to go almost unremarked, this case has elicited a level of rage unprecedented in recent years. Her cremation was kept closed to media and the public, and held immediately after the family’s return.
The case has garnered international attention, and the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, weighed in Sunday. “Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected,” Mr. Ban said in a statement in which he welcomed efforts by the government but called for “further steps and reforms to deter such crimes and bring perpetrators to justice.”
Protests continued throughout the weekend against rape, abuse of women, poor policing, and an overstretched ineffective justice system. But even as angry citizens demanded more from their government, a watchdog group made public its research showing that men charged with violent crimes against women hold political office across the country.
The Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, said at least two members of the national parliament face sexual assault charges. According to its findings, six state MPs are charged with rape, while 36 other local politicians face charges of other crimes against women and girls including “molestation.” Every party has fielded candidates facing charges of crimes against women; parties have put 27 candidates who face rape charges on their state election tickets in the past five years, the association said, based on its analysis of the candidates’ own registration affidavits. (Of the 552 members in India’s lower house of parliament, 162 face criminal charges of some kind.)
In Delhi, no mass demonstrations occurred over the weekend, as police acted on the central government’s orders to keep the heart of the city sealed off. Instead small protests, of 1,000 people or so, dotted the city, with candlelight vigils Sunday night in dozens of neighbourhoods.
The bus stop where the young woman and a male friend caught what they thought was a city bus home after a movie has become a place of pilgrimage, drawing crowds with candles. Demonstrations were also held in Mumbai, Patna, Chennai, Bangalore and other parts of India.
Police have charged the six men, one of them a minor, with murder, and the government has appointed a special prosecutor to lead the case, which it promised to fast-track. Of 635 rapes reported in Delhi up to November this year, one has led to a conviction so far.
Indian media, prevented by law from identifying the woman, are walking a fine line, providing a stream of details from interviews with people they say were her close friends, neighbours and relatives in her family’s ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh.
They described a fiercely determined student whose light was always the last one burning in the low-income neighbourhood near the airport where she reportedly shared a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and two brothers. Her father, reported to be a loader at the airport and to come from a poor and low-caste community, is said to have doted on her and been hugely proud of her academic achievements. She was about to complete a physiotherapy degree and dreamed of being a doctor; her parents had sold their family land, and mortgaged a last plot back in Uttar Pradesh, according to The Hindu newspaper, to finance her studies.
Several media outlets reported Sunday that she was in the process of planning a February wedding to the young man who was with her during the attack. He was also severely injured and is recovering with family.
The level of care, including psychological support, that the young woman received after her attack, and the swift arrest of her assailants, showed what the Indian system is capable of when there is political will to respond to rape, noted Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
But many victims battle to get police to register complaints. “They often go from one hospital to another even for a medical examination, and report suffering humiliation at police stations and hospitals,” she said. India continues, for example, to employ a “two finger test,” in which a doctor inserts fingers into a rape victim’s vagina to test for what is termed “vaginal laxity,” or the presence of a hymen, since her sexual history is believed to have strong influence on her credibility.
Marital rape is legal in India, while the theoretical minimum seven-year-sentence for rape is routinely reduced by judges in the relatively few cases that end up in court.