2012 was a troubling year. It was my first year as a young trainee reporter with a national publication. It was also my first year of being a working woman in New Delhi—India’s capital city that is notorious for making women feel uncomfortable in public spaces. Most times, it’s made women uncomfortable just for existing.
Sometime in mid-2012, I boarded a bus from outside my office in central Delhi to go back home in east Delhi. It was 9 PM. The timing of a day is indicative of how much blame is shifted on a woman if she gets assaulted, molested, catcalled, raped or murdered. The later it is in the day, the more the woman is to blame.
In India, some of these incidents are not even worst-case scenarios. They’re just everyday things. Things we try to circumvent when we pick out our daily clothing, or choose our mode of transport, or land up in a market, or even go out for a movie.
That night, as I waited for a vacant seat in the bus, I confronted a leering man, who, outraged by my audacity, stared at me for the next 20 minutes of my journey. Finally, my stop arrived and I got off. But the moment the bus moved, the man stuck his head out of the window, spat in my direction, and smiled a creepy, satisfied smile.
That glob of spit landed on my bag, but that was the last time I’d take a bus in Delhi.
In December of the same year, a 23-year-old woman also took a bus at night. She was getting home after having watched Life of Pi in south Delhi. She was gang raped by six men on the bus, including the driver. So brutal was the torture and assault that she died in a few days in a Singapore hospital.
It made international news. The rapists blamed her for the rape, and her death. “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape,” said one of them. He added that a “decent girl won’t roam around at 9 at night.”
As the country mobilised and experienced collective, overwhelming anger and grief, a conversation on India’s rape problem started like never before. 2012 was different because every day, a new development on the case confronted us with realities we always knew but barely spoke about. I thought back to the glob of spit on my bag and shuddered thinking whether I should be grateful it was just that. I was 24, a year older than the woman who was coined “Nirbhaya” by the media, meaning “the fearless one.”
Last year, Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta created Delhi Crime for Netflix, a fictionalised retelling of the events of the 2012 case. It shows the incident from the perspective of the Delhi Police, who faced immense backlash for not handling the case well. It made the viewers question whether due legal process is even possible in a country with a pervasive culture of misogyny. On November 23, the series won the Best Drama Series award at the 48th International Emmy Awards.
“I dedicate this award to all the women who not just endure the violence that so many men inflict on them, but are then tasked to solve the problem,” said Mehta in his acceptance speech. “Finally, to the tireless mother, and her daughter. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about you both and what the world subjected you two to. And I hope none of us ever forget that.”
When Delhi Crime had come out in 2019, it had brought back the cold, brutal reality for almost every woman I knew. It included powerful performances by actors Shefali Shah and Rasika Duggal, along with actors Rajesh Tailang, Adil Hussain and Aakash Dahiya, among others.
Female friends messaged me to tell me it was too uncomfortable to watch. Many left it midway because they couldn’t go on. Some didn’t even watch it because the lived reality for so many women itself is so disturbing that watching it televised can become too much.
The men convicted for Nirbhaya’s rape and murder were executed in 2018. Capital punishment quenches the momentary, emotional thirst for justice. It feels like the right thing to do, because all due processes often fail.
In 2018, a controversial Thomson Reuters survey stated that India is the most dangerous country in the world for women. Official crime data shows that India sees 88 rapes a day, with a conviction rate of less than 30 percent. The data, though, feels cold and distant in comparison to the ground reality.
Last month, I visited Hathras, the Uttar Pradesh district where four upper-caste men allegedly raped, strangled and murdered a teenage Dalit girl. All kinds of theories—read, victim shaming—floated amid the media brouhaha, from her having an affair with one of the men, to her parents “honour killing” her. Her dead body was cremated by the state police without consulting the family. It made international news, again. The family was mobbed by the media, just like Nirbhaya’s was. They’re hanging by a thread for justice.
Out of the chaos that erupts every time this kind of news takes centre stage, one thing is clear: Such stories make for great headlines. Heck, even great awards. In fact, Netflix got lucky their movie was allowed to air at all. A 2015 BBC documentary on the Nirbhaya case was banned.
The Nirbhaya case led to a promise of fast-track courts to deliver justice, and a government-controlled fund that aids that form of justice. But as of 2019, nearly 90 percent of the fund was lying unused. Some states have not set up the recommended fast-track courts because they don’t have the funds for it.
The justice system also dictates how women should act when they’re raped. In July this year, a judge in Bihar ordered the arrest of 22-year-old gang rape survivor for being “agitated” in the court due to prolonged questioning. A month before that, yet another judge in Karnataka gave bail to an accused because the rape survivor slept after being “ravished”. Capital punishments and fast-track courts are a long way from addressing everyday acts of violence.
An Emmy is all well and good, but I’ll only celebrate when even things on the ground are changing.
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