India's Shame

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India Today / ZUMA PRESS

The victim's body leaves the New Delhi airport in an ambulance after an attempt to save her life in a hospital in Singapore

In the early morning of Dec. 30, a quiet ceremony took place in New Delhi amid tight security. Police in helmets and fatigues kept the media scrum at bay while a young woman, the victim of a chilling gang rape in the capital, was cremated. Just hours before the funeral, her body was flown back to India from a Singapore hospital, where she had been treated for the ultimately fatal injuries inflicted on her by her six attackers. Her family's farewell was private, but her rape and subsequent death were not. They sparked grief and soul-searching across the country over how this unimaginable crime, and so many more like it, have become a stain on modern India.

It was two weeks earlier that the 23-year-old physiotherapy student, whose identity has not been revealed in keeping with Indian law, was trying to get home at night from a movie. She boarded a private bus with her fiancé and was raped inside for over an hour by the six assailants, including the driver. They also assaulted her and her fiancé with an iron rod, then threw them out of the vehicle and drove away. As she struggled on life support, the streets of New Delhi erupted in protest over the shocking crime and the complacency that has allowed India to become such a dangerous place for women. The day of the victim's funeral, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Jantar Mantar, a historical park in the capital, carrying placards calling for justice. "The feeling of being unsafe that every woman in this city — and in this country — has has to go," says protester Manya Sharma, a graduate student. "We want to feel safe. Is that too much to ask?"

It isn't. But sexual violence is troublingly widespread in India, a symptom of both a weak legal system and the lingering perception that women are second-class citizens who do not have the same rights under the law as males. While India is rightly praised for its economic growth and other modernizations, its attitudes toward women seem stuck in the Dark Ages. Female feticide is still in practice, as is making sure boys get more food and schooling than their sisters. "Eve-teasing," the local term for sexual harassment, is unsettlingly common, and unfortunately, so is rape. While many cases go unreported, more than 24,000 rapes were documented in 2011 across India; in New Delhi, of over 600 reported rapes in 2012, there was only one conviction. The problem is not limited to India's cities. Just days before the New Delhi rape victim died in Singapore, a 17-year-old girl in Badshahpur village in northern Punjab state killed herself, seemingly out of desperation, after waiting for police to take action against the two men who had allegedly raped her weeks earlier. "Our society is feudal," says Aman Deol, general secretary of a Punjab women's-rights group. "A woman is a possession, like a piece of land. She does not have freedom of any kind — over her body, her mind or her choice of partner."

But to paint Indian women as a faceless group of passive victims is not only a disservice; it's wrong. After all, India's most powerful politician is a woman, Sonia Gandhi, with peers across many other fields. Middle-class women in particular now have greater opportunity and mobility than ever before. The accomplishments and aspirations of the New Delhi victim, who was a medical student and reportedly among the first in her family to get a higher education, epitomize the best India can offer its young women. That her future was so violently stamped out underscores the conflict between the injustices of the old India and the promise of the new — in which the first tries to suffocate the second. At protests and candlelight vigils across the country, demonstrators expressed anger at leaders' crowing about India's economic potential while failing to guarantee citizens the simple right of safety. As millions more Indians no longer live on the brink, says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, "they want accountability. They want a system that works for them."

At first, India's leaders did not respond quickly to the rape and the outpouring of national grief, while police used heavy-handed crowd-control measures like tear gas and water cannons to keep protesters out of certain parts of New Delhi. Eventually, the authorities acted. The six males on the bus, one of whom is apparently a minor, were arrested and are set to be charged with murder, for which they could face the death penalty. Officials pledge to toughen existing antirape laws and have set up a task force to oversee women's safety in New Delhi. They have also created special commissions to look into specifically the Dec. 16 gang rape and fast-track other cases of aggravated sexual assault. The government is scheduling more buses at night, installing GPS units on public transport and increasing nighttime police patrols along commuter routes frequented by women. But improving safety in New Delhi will not help women in other parts of the country. "There is a culture of impunity: doctors who don't treat patients properly, soldiers who commit rape — they all get away with it," says Ganguly. "It has to be a systemic change. That's a much harder task."

It can be even harder outside the glare of city lights. At the edge of a lush wheat field in Punjab state, Badshahpur's villagers held their own funeral on New Year's Eve for the 17-year-old girl. Like the victim in New Delhi, she had her own dream: she wanted to be a police officer and jogged daily to keep fit. After she was attacked in November, she pressed the police to take action, according to family members. No arrests were made until Dec. 26, the day that she swallowed poison and died.

After their daughter's funeral, the victim's parents sat in the courtyard outside their two-room house with relatives and local politicians. The last time this part of the country was in the national spotlight, it was for other grim news: in 2006, scores of female fetuses were found in a mass grave nearby. It's a scandal that makes sense on this day to the victim's mother, who declined to give her name. Sitting in the courtyard next to her husband, she asks a tragic — and bleakly understandable — question. "Who wants to have a baby girl when the attitude of the police and society will be to deny her justice?" If India does not take its inhumanity toward women seriously, it will always be a lesser nation than it can ever be.

with reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick / New Delhi and Sanjay Sharma / Badshahpur