On December 16, 2012 in New Delhi, India, a horrifying crime occurred that left strong reverberations across the nation for months. A young woman was gang-raped in a moving bus, while the friend that accompanied her was beaten up for trying to intervene. She was further brutally physically assaulted and thrown out of the bus and attempts were allegedly made to run her over. Earning the monicker “Nirbhaya” or “fearless one” from the media during the public outrage that followed, she succumbed to her injuries and died within two weeks.
Nearly five years on since this incident, the Supreme Court of India sentenced four of the accused to death after establishing their guilt at a marathon hearing earlier this year. A fifth convict allegedly committed suicide and died in custody. A sixth — a juvenile convict — was sent to a reformation camp, from which he was released in 2015.
The panel called the case an instance that sent a “tsunami of shock” over the country and counted it as the “rarest of the rare” of incidents. Terming it a most brutal and diabolical attack and taking into account the long list of dehumanizing acts the victim was subjected to, the Court awarded a verdict of capital punishment.
Several appeals were made at lower level courts to mitigate the intensity of the punishment by taking into account factors of the accused like their age, socioeconomic conditions, dependents, lack of an established criminal record, and their possibility for rehabilitation. The Delhi police very clearly sought capital punishment even as the defense counsel requested leniency. The earliest trial court meted out the death penalty – a verdict that was subsequently held up by the High Court before proceeding to the Supreme Court. The overwhelming public opinion in the week following the verdict appears to be that this was a clear instance of good justice served, and that the accused were monsters that deserved no less.
However it is also important at this juncture to read this verdict as much more than just the conclusion of a case that galvanized outrage in a manner unparalleled by any other case of gender-based crime. While the crime was a horrifying one, it is necessary to also probe into the climate it occurred in and examine whether it was indeed a case as exceptional as the verdict indicates.
The parents of the victim have expressed relief at the verdict and declared that justice has finally been meted out. However, in the same breath, they have also rued the delay that other victims of rape face in India today. To place this in context, the Nirbhaya case rode on extreme public outrage, where the victim was given a larger than life image as a fearless crusader and treated as a representative for all women – as India’s daughter. Despite the high-profile nature of the case by virtue of both extensive reportage and the protests that followed, the verdict took the time it did to be put into place.
As the parents bemoan the four long years they waited for this moment of relief, one overarching question begs for an answer: Has the Nirbhaya case opened the path for speedy justice and can a non-high-profile case move through the system at even this speed now? What happened in the meanwhile to all the pending cases languishing on shelves at the lower levels of the judiciary system, while victims and their families struggle with legal fees?
To add to this, in the post-verdict public discussion, the Delhi Police have been let off the hook. They have been lauded for their hard work on this case and tasked with the responsibility of training their counterparts across the country to handle cases of this nature. This narrative remembers that they zeroed in on the bus and apprehended the accused within 72 hours. The deputy commissioner of police for South Delhi has gone on record to call it a landmark investigation, which was charge sheeted in record time with more than 100 officers working on it.
While the veracity of the above can hardly be doubted, public memory seems to have erased the initial castigation that the Delhi Police received. Early reportage on the Nirbhaya case questioned the following: whether the bus where the crime took place had the required permits to ply the streets of Delhi at the time it did; whether the response time of the police to the calls for help was excessive; and the mysterious absence of any run-ins with policemen for the bus in the two-hour span that the crime took place. As the South Delhi police team prepares to train its counterparts on handling media questions, public outrage, and cases of sensitive nature, who will take over the responsibility of ensuring that the same dedication is accorded to cases of a less high-profile nature?
The Supreme Court panel has pointed to statistics that show that crimes against women have nearly doubled between 2005 and 2015. While one such case has been put to rest, on a near daily basis, newspapers across the country talk of new cases that come to light, some of which certainly parallel the level of brutality that this case saw. When the film India’s Daughter was released covering the Nirbhaya case, a strong and defensive strand of public opinion expressed outrage and defensiveness at its portrayal of the rape culture in India. Rape cases and cases of sexual harassment continue to operate in systems of power that question the victim’s standpoint and character in an attempt to pin the blame on her conduct. Even within the Nirbhaya case, when the Delhi Commission for Women protested the release of the juvenile convict on grounds that his reform had not been established, the judicial system disregarded the plea.
What really made this case the “rarest of the rare”? Perhaps the fact that the victim received justice. Perhaps the fact that she did not live to suffer through the character assassination that other victims have traditionally faced. These factors aside, there is little evidence to suggest that the thousands of other victims in India had not gone through an experience as harrowing as Nirbhaya’s. There is little to suggest that death penalty has served any purpose other than to respond to the public calls for justice without placing more sensitive systems in place.
The victim’s mother has stated that she cannot imagine a better gift for her daughter, who would have turned 28 this year, than the justice this verdict promises. Perhaps a better present would have been an unwillingness to let the fire this case evoked in India fade into mere sparks now. Perhaps a better present would have been a more critical appraisal of the circumstances that allowed such a crime to take place.
Perhaps a better present would have been a system that did not see this case as the rarest of rare, but one that is an omnipresent threat for women across India, generating the political will to tackle it as such.