Thousands poured onto the streets of India over the weekend to mourn the death of a pre-medical student who was subjected to a brutal gang rape.
The 23-year-old woman, still unnamed but dubbed “Nirbhaya” meaning “Braveheart,” was cremated in a private ceremony in New Delhi, the city where she was viciously assaulted Dec. 16, 2012. Media reports say she bravely fought her attackers, and just as courageously fought for her life, before succumbing to her injuries on Dec. 29.
Six men arrested for the attack have now been charged with murder.
Protests have rocked India since the horrifying rape became known two weeks ago. According to numerous media reports the young woman was returning home from a movie, accompanied by a male friend, when men on a passing private bus urged the two to board, suggesting the bus was going to their neighborhood. There were six men on the bus, including the driver.
Reportedly when the young woman’s companion demanded they be let out, the men beat him with an iron rod. As the young woman defended her friend, the men turned and attacked, beat and gang raped her. They then threw the two out of the moving bus onto the street.
Doctors said the men must have used the iron rod in the rape as the young woman suffered extensive damage to her intestines and other organs. She died from her injuries after being flown to a Singapore hospital known for its organ transplant surgeries.
The attack became a protest flashpoint for pent up anger over the sexual harassment and assaults that Indian women face daily, across class, religious and caste lines. The case has highlighted the danger faced by women in India, and caused mounting anger over police and politicians’ failure to take the issue seriously. The protests evidently caught the government by surprise. And police use of tear gas on peaceful protesters was widely condemned.
Veteran Communist Member of Parliament Brinda Karat said it was a shame that it took “a death of such a brave healthy woman to wake India and wake up this government.”
The rape and subsequent death of the woman has “shaken the conscience of the nation,” Communist Party of India leader D. Raja said, adding that society has to challenge itself to change its laws as well as its consciousness and culture regarding women.
He said both government and the wider society have to “acknowledge the act of gender equality, giving equal rights and dignity to women.”
“This is not an isolated incident. Sexual assault cases are the fastest increasing crimes in India,” the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said in a statement.
Left parties and women’s organizations have a program to prevent violence against women, “which the government has failed to accept and implement,” the statement said. Such measures include police and legal reforms that could guarantee rapists are arrested and prosecuted.
The mostly spontaneous protests have included a wide range of Indian society, political and apolitical. Women, especially younger women, are among the leading forces.
Because of the broad and spontaneous nature of the protests, multiple demands have emerged. Some have demanded the death penalty or castration for rapists. Others say the death penalty does not guarantee justice, nor does it prevent sexual assault and violence.
Prosecutors have “fast-tracked” the case and reportedly will seek the death penalty.
In announcing the Jan. 2 inauguration of a fast track court to try sexual violence cases, India’s chief justice, Altamas Kabir, cautioned against lynch-mob mentality, while promising swift justice.
“It is good to know that after this rather tragic incident of December 16, people have started raising their voices against certain crimes against society, against crime against women,” Kabir said.
But the immediate reaction of people, he said, has been to say, don’t put these persons to trial, hand them over to us, we will deal with them, hang them.
“Now these kinds of sentiments, which are emotional, are rather dangerous sentiments. But these emotions will continue until the matter comes to us and we deal with them expeditiously,” he said.
The new court is just the first of five fast-track courts that will hear cases of sexual offenses against women.
Photo: Protesters light candles as they mourn the death of a gang-rape victim in New Delhi on Dec. 29 (AP). Teresa Albano contributed to this story.