India, One Year After Nirbhaya

A year has passed since the fatal gang-rape of the 23-year old student in New Delhi, which in the words of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee “shook the conscience of the whole nation.” The tragic episode led the world’s largest democracy to confront the way in which it treats half its population. But what, if anything, has changed since Nirbhaya’s death?

The streets of Delhi saw unprecedented waves of protests in the wake of the gang-rape. Disenchanted youth took to the streets demanding safety for women and justice for Nirbhaya. The public outrage in the days and weeks following the tragedy led to the passage of stricter, more comprehensive legislation on sexual violence. At the same time, throngs of demonstrators also demanded that the defendants be given the death penalty, or worse yet, that they be tortured.

The judicial proceedings against the defendants further demonstrated the inherent tension in human rights faced in this context. The Delhi court tried the youngest of the accused as a juvenile despite public pressure to try him as an adult. As a result, he was sentenced to three years at a reformatory facility, the maximum allowed under Indian law. Meanwhile, Nirbhaya’s parents are continuing to push for what they call “full justice” by appealing for the death penalty for the juvenile convicted in the crime.

Another accused believed to have committed suicide while in police custody, leading to pointed questions about the state of security for prisoners in India.

But nine months after Nirbhaya’s gang-rape, a “fast-track” court finally sentenced the four remaining adults to death. While the convictions were delivered relatively quickly by Indian judicial standards, the death sentences handed to the remaining defendants raised questions about the pursuit of justice and human rights. The use of the death penalty in this case and in other recent cases has further reversed India’s unofficial moratorium on the death penalty despite a 1983 landmark decision by the country’s Supreme Court, which reserved the death penalty for only “the rarest of rare cases.”

But the convictions in themselves only scratch the surface in addressing violence against women. Nirbhaya’s death does not fall only on her rapists. It also falls collectively on Indian society—which retains male privilege and allows for gender-based violence in all its forms—ranging from rape to female feticide. A sea change will only result when a consistent and regular effort is made to ensure the rule of law applies to other cases of gender-based violence coupled with comprehensive awareness across the country.

While the road to getting justice for Nirbhaya has been bumpy and paved with ethical dilemmas, the past year certainly marks a watershed event to advance a much-needed conversation and action on gender equality in India.  In addition to the passage of stricter laws in the wake of Nirbhaya’s death, a government hotline has already responded to half a million calls in regard to sexual harassment, domestic violence, and stalking.

Preliminary efforts to shape positive societal attitudes on gender equality are also apparent in numerous quarters. Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin and TV presenter Juhi Pandey addressed the misogynistic responses to rape in a satirical anti-rape video titled, It’s Your Fault, which went viral in September. The following month, popular Indian jewelry brand Tanishq released a TV commercial that celebrates remarriage for women, which has conventionally been frowned upon. And a powerful public service commercial released this past month takes on men who ogle and harass women.

In an interview for Democracy Now!, playwright Eve Ensler expressed optimism for women in India following the Delhi gang-rape. “I have never seen anything like that, where sexual violence broke through the consciousness and was on the front page, nine articles in every paper every day, in the center of every discourse, in the center of the college students’ discussions, in the center of any restaurant you went in. And I think what’s happened in India, India is really leading the way for the world. It’s really broken through.”

But India still has a long way to go. Rapes in rural India rarely garner any attention. And just last week, a young woman was repeatedly gang-raped in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. While 12 individuals have been detained in connection to this act of violence, a local politician has been quick to engage in character assassination of the survivor rather than ensuring that justice is served.

Nirbhaya’s death shattered the deep silence surrounding sexual violence in a country where rape is often viewed as a woman’s personal shame to bear. What more comes of this remains to be seen.

Galhotra_Sumit_Bio_PhotoAbout the Author: Sumit Galhotra is a New York City-based journalist who specializes in press freedom, human rights and South Asia. His work has appeared on CNN.com, The Huffington Post, and The Jewish Daily Forward among other publications.

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