Indians are horrified at the news of the death of a young rape victim, whose case has sparked massive protests. The country is now bracing itself for further demonstrations.
India has been shaken to the core by the fate of a 23-year-old woman, the victim of a brutal gang rape. For the past two weeks, her story has dominated the country's media.
On December 16, the young woman and her male companion boarded a bus in the Indian capital New Delhi, on their way home from a trip to the cinema. It proved to be the start of a nightmare. The pair were attacked by six men, who beat them with iron bars and brutally raped the woman before flinging them out of the moving vehicle. In the morning of December 29, the young woman died of multiple organ failure.
Ranjana Kumari, a women's rights activist from New Delhi, is demanding a radical change in attitudes. "This is how we can pay our last respects to the soul of the victim. Because our country, our society has become such that girls and women are no longer safe here."
The identity of the victim has so far remained secret. But during her two-week fight for life, the media and protesters gave her various symbolic names: "India's Daughter," "Amanat," which translates as something like "treasure," or "Nirbhaya" - "She who is without fear." Candlelight vigils were held in many Indian cities. People wept on one another's shoulders, and thousands of people repeatedly took to the streets in protest. The police countered the demonstrators with batons and water cannons. One policeman died in the disturbances.
The civil rights campaigner Kiran Bedi sees the student as a symbol of the years of protest by those who denounce the increasing incidence of violence against women. "Since the mass anti-corruption movements instigated by the civil rights activist Anna Hazare, people now know how to raise their voices in protest," she said.
Bedi believes we are seeing the start of a new era in India, saying, "Every Indian is affected in one way or another by the two fundamental problems of our society: corruption and lack of security."
A rape is reported in New Delhi on average every 18 hours, yet in 75% of cases the perpetrators go unpunished
Government under pressure
Pressure on the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is growing. The 80-year-old Singh - who himself has three daughters - didn't speak to the nation until Christmas Eve, more than a week after the incident. Singh promised a speedy trial and tough sentences for the perpetrators. Six men have already been arrested. They now stand accused of murder.
Singh has also appointed two special investigative commissions. This, however, has not appeased many in the nation, as attested by the furious comments in Internet forums and on Facebook. Many people are describing the incident, and what they see as the feeble response by politicians, as "India's shame."
On Wednesday (26.12.2012), the government decided to transfer the victim to a special clinic in Singapore "on medical grounds." It is suspected that this was a move to try to buy time, in the face of the protests erupting all across the country. During the six-hour transfer to Singapore, the victim's blood pressure dropped dramatically.
Women's rights activist Ranjana Kumari strongly criticizes the government for its inaction. "When a government cannot fulfill its primary duty, which is to guarantee the security of citizens, then there is something wrong with the government, the whole system, and the country itself."
Prime Minister Singh, who often appears tired, has been under pressure for some time over various corruption scandals. There has been repeated talk of moving up the parliamentary election, which would normally take place in 2014.
India at a crossroads
The human rights activist Kiran Bedi was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, the Asian Nobel, in 1994. She joined the police service in 1972, quickly rising to become the only woman to date to head the organization.
Bedi believes that India is now at a crossroads. "It's a total failure, especially on the part of the police. Nobody has any confidence in the security forces any more. Many victims are simply sent home when they want to report a crime."
Human rights activists estimate that only about a quarter of rape cases in India are currently brought to light, and that in 75 percent of cases the perpetrators go unpunished. The bus in which the young student was being raped for almost an hour drove past several police checkpoints. "During their training, police officers learn how they can prevent crimes. We have to check whether, in this respect, they are actually doing their duty," Bedi says.
Women's rights activist Ranjana Kumari is calling for there to be a public register: "The names of sexual offenders should be listed on it, so they can be ostracized by society," she demands. "There have to be more patrols at night, and police officers need to be trained to develop sensitivity to gender issues."
The girl's body is being returned to India on Saturday evening (29.12.2012). The government is anticipating a fresh wave of mass demonstrations, and has accordingly stepped up security in the capital. Police in New Delhi have sealed off the seat of the Indian parliament, and all underground stations in the surrounding area have been closed.