I feel ashamed. Late last month I was loosely aware that some horrible crime had been committed against a woman in Delhi, the capital of India. But I looked no closer. I was too full of the joys of life. I was getting ready to host a party in London; I was looking forward to a family Christmas in the country; I was preparing for my annual skiing holiday. What was happening in my own life was more important than what had happened to some unknown female in a place as far away as Delhi.
I’m now back to reality, my eyes wide open. I now know exactly what happened to this twenty-three year old physiotherapy intern, so far unnamed. If you are at all sensitive to these matters it might be best if you read no further. She was gang raped, horrible enough in itself, but the details of what was inflicted on her, the violence and the mutilation, are almost beyond any horror that I have the power to conceive. What happened had nothing to do with sex and desire. It was an act of atavistic and sadistic hatred. It was an act that goes deep into India’s heart of darkness.
It was the evening of 16 December. The woman, let me just call her Sister, was on her way home with a male friend, an engineer. They had been to the cinema together to see The Life of Pi, something countless numbers of couples were doing that day across the Earth. They hailed a chartered bus, a private vehicle used to ferry schoolchildren by day. That night it was being taken on a joyride. Six men were on board, all members of staff.
Sister and her friend got on, after being told by one of the alleged perpetrators, a seventeen-year-old youth, that the bus was going in their direction. No sooner was it underway than the taunts and suggestions began. The bus had large tinted windows, so nobody from outside could see what was going on.
Sister’s male friend, trying to protect her, was beaten unconscious with an iron bar. She was dragged to the back of the bus, beaten with the same bar. Then the rape began, five men taking turns as the sixth drove the bus around the city streets. The sexual assault was violent enough. Making it even worse was the torture.
Later medical reports show that Sister suffered serious injuries to her abdomen, her intestines and her genitals. Doctors also report that a rusted iron implement had been thrust inside her. Part of her intestines was pulled out. She was then almost completely disembowelled. According to police reports, the youngest of her attackers, the seventeen-year-old, pulled out her intestines with his bare hands. Later in hospital she was found to have only 5% of her bowels left inside her body.
The couple were then dumped into the streets from the moving bus. The perpetrators allegedly tried to run Sister over, but she was pulled aside by her male companion. Both were later found bleeding on the sidewalk and taken to hospital, where doctors struggled to save Sister’s life. With her condition deteriorating, the decision was taken to move her to a specialist hospital in Singapore.
It has to be said that the motives here were political and not medical. She was going to die and the government, already embarrassed, did not want her to die in India. She did die. She died on 29 December, when I was skiing on the slopes of French Savoy.
As the details of the horror became public the mood in India turned toxic. There were widespread public protests in a country where rape and violence against women is commonplace. Not only that but the law is notoriously slow in dealing with accusations of sexual assault. There was only one conviction from the 635 cases of rape reported in Delhi between January and November of last year.
Most of India’s rape victims are poor and generally of a lower cast. Sister was different. She was a child of India’s emerging middle class. Disgust at the callousness of the attackers turned to disgust against the government. Across the country Indians, women and men, protested at the incompetence of the political classes. As I celebrated the arrival of 2013 half a world away a more sombre mood settled. Writing in the New Statesman, Soumya Bhattacharya said “We were shamed and chastened, united in grief, and the notion of revelry was not something that figured in most people’s minds.”
Deeply discomforted, the Indian government has promised to introduce harsher laws against rape, including thirty year jail terms, chemical castration and the setting up of fast track courts. In the meantime shock over the incident led to anti-rape protests spilling across India’s borders to the rest of the Subcontinent. There were demonstrations in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Even Ban ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, was moved to make a statement, saying that “Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated. Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected.”
Sister was cremated on 30 December in accordance with Indian custom. Her fate may, I stress may change attitudes towards women of all castes and classes in India. I certainly hope so.
Sister was my sister. She is your sister, your mother, your daughter, your cousin, your aunt; she is Everywoman