In a country inured, often indifferent, to sexualized violence against women, her story pierced the callous skin: Indians have followed it obsessively since the night two weeks ago when a young woman was found tossed on a roadside after being brutally raped by six men on the bus she tried to take home after catching a movie with a friend.
She died in the early hours of Saturday morning, unable to recover from the injuries they inflicted on her body – including rape with metal rods kept on the bus for mechanical repairs. The question now becomes what India will do with her death, whether the anger will fade with the news stories or if this is the moment of confrontation for the pervasive and casual misogyny India glosses over.
As morning broke foggy and cold over New Delhi on Saturday, riot police were reported by local television to be deploying throughout the centre of the capital as further protests erupted in a case that has brought thousands to the streets in the past two weeks.
The 23-year-old physiotherapy student, who has not been identified, died with her family at her bedside at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, hospital staff said. She was airlifted there on Wednesday night after receiving treatment for her injuries in New Delhi since the attack on Dec. 16.
“Despite all efforts by a team of eight specialists in Mount Elizabeth Hospital to keep her stable, her condition continued to deteriorate over these two days,” Kevin Loh, the hospital’s chief executive officer, said in statement reported by the Associated Press. “She had suffered from severe organ failure following serious injuries to her body and brain. She was courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds but the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome.”
Six men in custody for their role in the attack have now been charged with murder, along with rape and kidnapping. The government has promised to fast-track their trial, which could begin as early as next week. Rape cases routinely take as long as a decade to be heard in the Indian court system; rape-support organizations say that only one in 10 cases in the capital are ever reported to police to begin with, and as few as one in 100 in rural areas in the surrounding states in north India.
The young woman was attacked after she and a male friend, a 28-year-old software engineer, caught what they thought was a city bus to take them home from the mall in a well-travelled area in the south of the Indian capital, just after 9 p.m. on a Sunday. The bus was actually a private charter taken on a joyride by its driver and a group of friends who told police they were “looking for fun” when they duped the young woman and her friend into paying the equivalent of 20 cents to board.
When news of the attack broke, women across India’s socio-economic spectrum seemed to see themselves in its victim: both wealthier women, who could imagine themselves out on a Sunday night to see Life of Pi with a friend, and also those still seeking a way into India’s middle class. The rape victim came from a village in the north and her family had sold their small plot of land to send her to physiotherapy school in Delhi.
The young woman gave a detailed statement about the attack to police while she was fighting for her life in a Delhi hospital (she did this twice, in fact, after police bungled the first one). The details brought thousands of people out into the streets – many young women, and their mothers. The protests were inchoate in their demands: better policing, tougher assault laws, faster courts, safer streets, a change in attitude.
But a tone-deaf Indian government did not respond for days and instead unleashed police in riot gear, tear gas and water cannons against the protesters.
Only in the past few days did government make any official comment. On Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, identifying himself as a father of three daughters, said in a speech to political leaders that, “The emergence of women in public spaces, which is an absolutely essential part of social emancipation, is accompanied by growing threats to their safety and security. We must reflect on this problem, which occurs in all states and regions of our country, and which requires greater attention.”
As news of the young victim’s death raced across social media and dominated news outlets on Saturday morning, it did not seem the rage this case has inspired could be easily contained.
“In your heart, you already know who should shoulder the blame. We failed her, collectively as a civilized society, didn’t we? Our police couldn't protect her while she was being tortured. The men whom we elected did not handle the aftermath well. Our protests were subdued with force,” writer Rituparna Chatterjee said in a blog post for the news channel IBN Live posted before dawn in Delhi.
“We should have taught our men better.”