A brutal rape has shocked the Indian public. A young woman is in a critical condition in hospital after being assaulted by six men in a bus in the capital New Delhi.
The 23-year-old medical student was going home after going to the cinema in the south of the capital. She and her companion decided spontaneously to take a private bus instead of public transport. Such buses are often used as school buses during the day and take passengers illegally the rest of the time. What then happened has triggered outrage across India.
There were four men in the bus already - they were drunk. They beat up the man with an iron rod and pulled the woman to the back where they beat and abused her for 40 minutes. The two were then thrown out of the bus and are now in a critical condition in hospital.
The police has already arrested four men, including the bus driver, and there is a hunt for two more suspects. Three of the men arrested are in detention.
On Monday, angry women took to the streets of New Delhi to protest against the inaction of the government and the police, who responded with water cannons. There were also demonstrations in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Patna. Rights activists are calling for more protection and stricter laws.
Call for death penalty
Sunanda Mukherjee, the head of the Women's Commission in West Bengal, would go further: "The rapist should be hanged. We still have the death penalty in our country. In my opinion, such criminals should not only be hanged but executed in public."
Many agree with her in India but the activist Ranjana Kumari warns against jumping the gun. "People think there ought to be the death penalty in this case but they are angry. The death penalty is not easy. Only 45 people have been hanged since Indian independence."
For Kamini Jaiswal, an activist and lawyer, it's not a question of revenge but of prevention and appropriate punishment. "The problem is not the lack of laws but their implementation. Each time, it takes years before a person who has been charged is actually punished. Everything is always postponed. Maybe culprits are not worried because they know it will take a long time before they go to jail, if at all."
She says there has been a change in values over the past decades and that the inhibition threshold for such crimes has got lower. "There is a big gap between the rich and the poor and that's why people are very frustrated today." And more willing to use violence.
Furthermore, there are considerably more men than women in India because of the long-lasting practice of female feticide and infanticide.
‘Why shouldn't women be allowed out?'
"It is much more unsafe in the suburbs of the capital," journalist Usha Rai told Deutsche Welle. "Women in Noida, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon are well educated and have changed their lifestyle, wearing different clothes. But the men are old-fashioned and have very conservative attitudes."
This angers Sunanda Mukherjee: "Why shouldn't women go out at night?" she asks. "Why should I not show my body as a woman? Why am I not seen as a person and respected? Are we still living in the wilderness?"
Another problem is that the police often see the way a woman is dressed as justification for rape.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who visited the 23-year-old victim in hospital on Tuesday, has described the attack as "a source of shame for the capital" and called for a "concerted effort" to fight violence and criminality. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the assault was "heinous."
Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde Shinde has announced there will be a crackdown on buses with tinted glass and heavy curtains but these measures are already in place and are rarely implemented by the police.
Recently Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit described the city as being "safe for women."
Many commentators have said that the problem should not be ignored when the outrage dies down. The number of reported rape cases in India doubled between 1990 and 2008. This year alone, some 600 cases have been recorded in New Delhi.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court in New Delhi announced that five special courts would be set up to deal with sexual assault cases more rapidly.