Hundreds of protestors gathered in New Delhi on Saturday morning to mourn the death of a 23-year-old medical student who was raped and brutally assaulted on December 16. The woman passed away in the early hours of Saturday in a Singapore hospital, succumbing to injuries she suffered at the hands of six men on a moving bus. Those men have now been charged with her murder and could face execution. In the 12 days following the attack, the victim was breathing with a ventilator, her intestines were removed, and she suffered a cardiac arrest and multi-organ failure. She had said she wanted to live.
In recent days, the police cordoned off central Delhi from all traffic and closed down its metro stations to prevent protestors from reaching the seat of power at Raisina Hill and the India Gate war memorial. That is where protests were held earlier, leading to some incidents of violence. This time the government allowed protestors only at the usual demonstration site in Delhi, Jantar Mantar.
The woman, whose name has been withheld, has been named "Damini" by protestors after a 1993 Bollywood movie about a rape survivor’s fight for justice. One group of protestors shouted, “We are with Damini in her struggle,” as though she was still alive, one example of how the case has become a symbol of the issue of rape and sexual harassment in India.
Seen at the protests along with women were large numbers of men of all ages. One man held a printed piece of paper that read, “This death is a call for us to respect women.”
The protestors were divided between those who demanded the death penalty for the six accused rapists and those who thought they should be imprisoned instead. The latter groups, mobilized by left-wing student and political associations, outnumbered the right-wing groups on Saturday afternoon. However, larger numbers of ordinary citizens joined the protest in the evening, waving torches and the national flag, many demanding a public execution of the perpetrators.
Nisha Agarwal, a 22-year-old lawyer, said the movement had given her hope that the people will force the government to do something to make the city safer for women. “Above all, we need to amend the rape law to make it punishable by death.”
The Indian Supreme Court has in the past handed down the death penalty in cases of rape and murder where the judges deemed that the brutality of the crimes made them the “rarest of the rare."
But left-leaning groups argued that measures other than the death penalty were required. A pamphlet jointly issued by several labor and women’s-rights groups said sensitizing society against misogyny, holding police accountable, planning the city in a way that makes it safer for women, and fast-tracking rape trials were the true needs of the hour.
The government came in for considerable criticism from the protestors, who mobbed and shooed away Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit from the protest site. People were especially angry about media reports that quoted some doctors as saying that transferring the woman to a Singapore hospital was unnecessary and may actually have reduced her chances of survival. The government has denied those accusations.
One elderly man, KK Passi, went around the protest with a banner that said, “I have never been so hopeful in my life.” When asked what he was so hopeful about, he said he was sure that the protests would now force the next government to address the issue of women’s safety.
The popular resentment against the government was only inflamed when riot police tear-gassed and beat protestors with batons earlier, on December 23, at Raisina Hill, which houses the presidential palace. Media personnel were also targeted. Nishtha Gautam, a college lecturer, said, “We were just sitting on the road and chanting slogans when the police started hitting us without warning.”
One man walked bare-chested in the cold, his body painted with demands for public safety and slogans against police repression. Riot police looked away as he addressed them: “Take off your uniforms and join us.”
Amid criticism that the government was being seen as hostile to public anger, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a condolence message, "We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated. These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change.”