By Rachel Vinciguerra
People in Pune, India, support the recent death penalty verdict for the defendants of the Dehli rape case, but don’t believe punishment alone will solve larger problems of violence against women in India.
On Dec. 16, 2012, a 23-year old physiotherapy student and her boyfriend boarded a bus in the Indian capital of New Delhi after seeing the movie, “The Life of Pi.”
Behind the tinted windows of the bus, five drunk men from the Ravidass Camp slum beat the boyfriend and raped and tortured the 23-year old student for just under an hour as the bus made several stops en route to the Delhi International Airport.
After 45 minutes the couple was thrown out of the moving bus onto the side of the road where they were later discovered.
Although the 23-year old student was quickly transported to a hospital in Singapore, she suffered extreme internal injuries and died two weeks later. Her name is being withheld for legal reasons but the Indian press refers to her as Nirbhayaa, a Hindi word for “fearless”.
Anurekha Chari Wagh, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pune, said this case is not unique in India and it is not the first time such a case has mobilized the population to demand an end to violence against women. She said what was unique and “astonishing” was the media attention
“I think the trigger was the torture and use of metal instruments to hurt (the girl) and the fact this was happening when the bus was travelling all over Delhi,” she said. “People wanted a catalyst to challenge the complacency of the government and this incident just rocked them.”
Rajeev Shah, a Pune resident, agreed that the crime itself wasn’t exceptional, but its treatment by the public was.
“Because it happened in the capital city and because the girl was on her way to becoming a doctor it became a very high profile case,” he said.
According to the New York Times, a typical rape case tried in India could take as long as nine years, but because of the international attention this case garnered, the verdict was reached in nine months.
Chari Wagh said the case moved so quickly because of the media attention it drew. She said similar cases are not often treated the same way.
“(We) need to recognize that there are many such gruesome cases present in fast track court which run into the thousands where justice has not been delivered,” she said.
On Friday, Sept. 12, the Times of India reported the punishment for the four remaining adult defendants of the Dehli case: Vinay Sharma, Akshay Thakur, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh Sing.
Yogesh Khanna, Saket district court judge, sentenced the four men to death by hanging as punishment for a crime, which he said “shocked the collective conscious of India.”
The verdict must still be confirmed by India’s High Court and the defendants may appeal the case to the Supreme Court or ask the president for clemency before the sentence will be final.
The fifth surviving defendant, 17 at the time of the crime, has been sentenced to the maximum of three years imprisonment warranted for a juvenile. Now the Indian Supreme Court will reexamine whether juvenility can be determined on a case-by-case basis and evaluated according to the defendant’s maturity level and the severity of the crime.
“The verdict should have been stronger for all involved,” Shah said. “And the juvenile should have gotten the same treatment. I think the court is recognizing that now.”
Priyanka Khair, a 22-year-old Pune resident, said the judge delivered an appropriate punishment for the four adults but worries the death penalty will not change deep-seeded problems of violence against women in India.
“The punishment won’t change the situation,” Khair said. “Basic morals should be stronger and women should be treated as equals.”
A woman asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of this topic in India agreed that violence against women in India is a complex problem, but said she thinks the punishment may be the first step towards a solution.
“I’m against killing,” she said. “But I wonder now what is the right way. There has to be much more fear. And in some ways I think killing will help because it will create fear. But, of course, only one thing will not solve the problem. It has to be a lot of things together.”
Chari Wagh said the verdict may encourage more women to report assaults but she does not believe the verdict will deter future crimes against women.
“The people who commit crimes will now kill women so that they won’t be able to testify,” she said. “Fast and effective dealing in court is important, but most crucially I think we have to address the patriarchal set up, which means dealing with schools and education systems.”
Chari Wagh said only education would change traditional perceptions of rape in India.
“There’s this idea that ‘good girls’ do not get raped in India, and if you get raped you are not a ‘good girl,’” she said.
Because of this perception, Chari Wagh said, women are usually given some or all of the responsibility for violent crimes committed against them.
Both Khair and the anonymous source said women’s actions could play a role in the violence inflicted on them in India.
“There were problems on both sides of this case,” Khair said. “Women should be respected physically and emotionally, but the girl and her boyfriend shouldn’t have boarded the bus in Dehli with tinted glass.”
The anonymous source said that have to take precautions to ensure their safety in India today.
“The most important thing women can do is dress decently because they know what kind of people are outside,” she said. “People think they can do anything they want today. They see a girl and think she’s free property.”
Because of perceptions like this, Shah said he doesn’t think the verdict of the Dehli case will curb future violence against women in India.
“The public memory is too short,” he said. “This will surely also be forgotten.”
Shah said he knows these incidents are occurring across the country and very few are going to press. He said he worries things are getting worse rather than better.
“I have a daughter and I feel things are becoming more unsafe for (girls) to move around safely in cities,” he said.
It should be noted that Shah’s views on the case are liberal from the perspective of men in India. A male hotel employee in Mumbai was asked to comment on the case and declined the interview, claiming he had not heard of the Dehli rape. Shah was the only male who agreed to take part in an interview on the subject.
The anonymous source said although she doesn’t think the death penalty alone will stop violence against women, she hopes it will have some impact.
“These men need to be shamed so that women do not continue to be harassed, so they feel safe being on a train,” she said. “Something has to scare them.”