Sunday, September 22, 2013

Delhi gang rape, a courageous legacy

 Friday the 13th marked a milestone for India, not because they won a cricket championship, not because a new leader came into power or a new law was passed in Parliament. It was because four men were sentenced to hang for a brutal gang rape in December 2012 that repulsed not just India, but the world.

So what is the milestone that has been achieved here.....? First was the way the men and women of India reacted to the crime, they thronged the streets of New Delhi and brought the capital to a halt as they demanded for justice. The President, Prime Minister and the top police personnel must have heaved a sigh of relief after the funeral of the 23-year-old student whom the people called "Brave heart" and "India's daughter" was concluded without incident in the early hours of Dec 30, 2012.

The funeral itself was conducted under heavy security presence, in attendance were cabinet ministers and prominent politicians. When she lost her brave battle to live, far from home in Singapore, the police and military increased their presence on the streets, India was a time bomb waiting to erupt.

When her body was flown home on plane chartered by the Indian government to a capital seething with anger and grief, it was greeted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi no less.

This brave young woman was not the first of her kind to suffer such brutality and sadly  she won't be the last. But what happened to her brought a country to its knees and triggered a level of soul-searching unheard of previously in such a patriarchal society.

When I was growing up, I remember watching Tamil movies, where women who were raped were seen as tainted and unclean. They would be seen as women who brought shame to their families. Fathers and mothers would hang their heads in shame, people would sneer at them, and usually the girl would commit suicide because 'her life was destroyed'. The rapist usually got away with it, sometimes he even got the girl, because no else would want her.

In light of this kind of a mindset, what happened after the tragic Delhi gang rape is a revolution! When the four men were sentenced to die last Friday, the sentence was greeted with cheers inside the Saket District Court Complex. As the news was relayed to the huge crowds waiting outside, they burst into applause and chanted "Justice! justice!"

India's courts rarely hand down the death sentence and many have called for it to be abolished. India had an unofficial eight-year moratorium on capital punishment until last November when the only surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks was executed. So the death sentence meted out to the four men is an achievement in itself.

Shortly after her death, her family broke their silence and spoke to the media. A huge step forward for people who come from a culture where such things are hushed and hidden. In his first interview after her death, her father Badrinath Singh Pandey said:

" I want the world to know my daughter's name is Jyoti Singh. We want the world to know her real name. My daughter didn’t do anything wrong, she died while protecting herself. I am proud of her. Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks. They will find strength from my daughter."

Two days after the four men were sentenced to hang, Badrinath and his wife Asha Devi granted and interview to Australia's ABC News. They spoke of their pride in their daughter who was training to be a physiotherapist. They spoke of their despair and how life without her would never be the same again.

Full story

Her father said he hoped that his daughter's story would leave a lasting legacy. That what she suffered would ultimately lead to changes that would make life for women safer, not just in India but the world.

These words in particular struck me as poignant:

"She has become a symbol of women's empowerment. She has lit a flame and we have to keep that flame burning."

Interestingly in Sanskrit, Jyoti means light or flame, divine light, light of knowledge. The lamp that is lit in temples, that illuminates the spiritual path of a devotee, that is Jyoti.

Even in the aftermath of what happened and even while public anger was at fever-pitch, sexual crimes against women continued, even in New Delhi, the heart of the protests and demonstrations, the gang rapes and assaults continued.

But the flame has been lit, a powerful flame, the story of this brave young woman will never be forgotten. She has awakened the social conscience of a nation, and one day, not just India but the world will be a better place for it.

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