Nirbhaya is with a male friend, leaving the movie theater in Delhi where they watched Life of Pi together. They take an autorickshaw to a bus stop, where a man gestures from the door of a private white-line bus for them to get on. Perhaps it is still strewn with notebook dandruff and candy wrappers from the schoolchildren who rode it home earlier in the day. The couple doesn’t know the bus is off-duty, being used as a party venue for the bus driver, his brother, and his friends.
The bus takes a turn off the normal bus route. The men harass the unmarried couple, asking them questions about what they’re doing out so late, what indecency are they up to? The lights in the bus go out. Three men advance towards Nirbhaya’s friend, and promptly pummel him. As he lay semi-conscious between bus seats, the men take turns raping Nirbhaya. They use a rusty wheel jack handle. They beat her stomach and genitals with it. They destroy her insides until they are no longer inside, but hanging from her in what one of the perpetrators later describes as a rope between her legs. And when they are done, they throw Nirbhaya and her friend from the moving bus. He must drag her out of the way when they turn the bus around, trying to run over her limp, gouged body. Naked and bleeding, the survivors are passed by several cars before a highway patrol van spots them and calls for an ambulance.
The news shatters national discourse like a bullet through a bell jar. Himadhari, my best friend since high school, is marrying Gaurav in just a few days, and we’ve been shuttling between his family’s home in Delhi and hers in Chandigarh, four hours to the northwest. This is the third day in a week of ceremonies, so, immersed as we are in engagement rituals and reenactments from the Ramayana, news of Nirbhaya—which means “fearless one,” the pseudonym most commonly-used by the media—is slow to reach us. But once the newlyweds leave for their honeymoon, and I spend a week driving around Chandigarh with Himadhari’s family, Nirbhaya’s name echoes around the dining rooms of upscale restaurants and against the windows of cars stuck in traffic. The outrage is palpable, the press coverage endless, and, soon, the questions begin: Where were the Delhi police? Who were these other men, besides the driver and his brother, who had actually been the one driving the bus? How on Earth could this happen?
The police were, in fact, quite close; when Nirbhaya and her friend were ejected from the bus on the side of a road, a police cruiser was stationed nearby. The other men were friends of the bus driver and his brother, though one perpetrator—a juvenile—had just met them that day.
Nirbhaya’s father comes out in wake of the crime, as she lay in intensive care, to say that he is proud of his daughter. She had done nothing wrong—in fact, she had fought back. He even tells the media her first name; Jyoti, meaning “light” or “flame,” happened to have also been one of the pseudonyms given to her. In a country—indeed, in a world—where victim-blaming is still a cultural commonplace, entire families often face stigmatization when a member has been raped, which encourages parents to silence their children, and survivors to silence themselves. In a moment when families are expected to cow to societal shame and just stay quiet, Jyoti’s parents’ public acknowledgement of their daughter’s rape is seen as an act of bravery. And other women soon find the courage to do the same: all over India, in cities and villages, cosmopolitan capitals and farming communities, women start naming their attackers. Jyoti’s extreme case blows open a whole powder keg of unreported rapes. The courts move swiftly to develop a fast-track system for rape cases to accommodate the new influx, or perhaps to mollify a furious public. Politicians, especially female politicians, hold press conferences on national television to call for stricter laws and a cultural shift in how women are treated. But for the people of India, especially for those Jyoti’s age, this is not enough. The streets fill with rage.
For days, protests surge through the arteries of the city, especially around India Gate, where the new part of New Delhi sits, where government officials work in great white columned impositions on the skyline, where police will eventually give up on trying to stop the mob and settle for trying to control its path. They’ve already used water cannons, and tear gas, and lathis, a bamboo club bound with iron, to try to dispel the crowds after they “grew violent”: women, according to police, started shattering bus windows with their bare hands. We see more protests in person than on television. The news says it is groups of students, incensed that one of their own was raped in public, but as we get stuck in traffic driving through Delhi, a week after Jyoti was attacked, we see people of all ages and genders, some dressed in saris and others in jeans. We see people chanting and marching by the thousands, and we end up taking another route because it seems that to wait for the end of this torrent would be to wait until justice has been served to every woman raped in India, a never-ending demonstration of bureaucratic failure and entire generations taught to see half of themselves as something less than human. Jyoti is a vibration in the earth that could mean a new shift in tectonic plates, or one that could have always been there.
A couple of weeks later, after Himadhari and Gaurav return to Delhi from their honeymoon, we spend New Year’s Eve at a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. We are given a square of thin fabric, red with gold embellishments, to tie over our heads so that our hair is technically covered before we enter the temple. Himadhari, Gaurav, his cousins, and myself drink chai and eat gulab jamun, the syrup turning my fingertips sweet, amid hundreds of people asking for peace in the upcoming year. Candlelight marches past in the dark around the temple, hundreds more people acknowledging that Jyoti is spending the night in Singapore, hanging on to life in another ICU, and that her story is one of thousands, perhaps millions. Every club in the city is shut down, and parties have been cancelled, in her honor. Our new year begins in a vigil. Delhi mourns itself.
* * * * *
My girlfriend, Julie, has been sending me a series of messages asking if I was in Delhi at the time of Jyoti’s rape, and can I fly home immediately? With all of these women coming forward with their stories of assault, Julie says, it seems that rape is rampant in India; do I have to stay? What’s the point of subjecting myself, she asks, to another month in a country where no one cares about rape, where it seems men are pathological about it?
I lie and tell her we had already left for Chandigarh when Jyoti was attacked. I repeat the same lie to my parents and friends who ask where I was at the time. I’m lying partially to keep my loved ones from worrying too much, partially to avoid needing to defend my decision to travel through India after Himadhari’s wedding, but mostly because the assumption behind this question is that being in Delhi makes me more susceptible to rape than, say, being on a college campus in America. If I returned to Boston, the logic seemed to go, I’d be away from those men.
In 2012, 706 cases of rape were reported in Delhi. Given the rapid growth of the city and 2011 census data that place estimates for the female population in 2012 at 10.3 million, this means that if all 706 cases were reported by women, then 0.00006% of Delhi’s women reported being raped the same year as Jyoti. Meanwhile, a United States Department of Justice report from 2007 stated that approximately 19% of women will be sexually assaulted during their college careers. While in both cases the numbers are extremely conservative due to drastic underreporting (another DOJ paper from the same year estimates that only 12% of college women who are raped ever report it to law enforcement), these statistics unveil the fact that the fear of my loved ones was based entirely on the battle cry of media that drummed up latent racism to sell an already sensational story to Western viewers.
Three years later, the documentary India’s Daughter will be released, and a similar argument will play out across international news media. The film, directed by a British woman named Leslee Udwin, will feature the first filmed interview any journalist has been able to obtain with one of the convicted rapists, Mukesh Singh, as he sits on death row. In his interview, he states that if Jyoti hadn’t struggled, if she had simply allowed the rape to happen, maybe the men wouldn’t have killed her.
This interview, released online before the film premieres, leads to a renewed international outcry that something in India needs to change. The Indian government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, bans the documentary from airing on national television, stating that the interview was obtained illegally. This, of course, only galvanizes the international community’s opinions of the Modi administration. Ian Jack, writing in The Guardian, states that it’s not the fact that the film is about an already widely publicized rape case, but that it was created by a foreigner that the government hates. “However familiar the truth,” he writes, “governments hate to hear it spoken from the outside.” In an interview, Udwin defends her decision to make India’s Daughter: “As a global citizen, I have every right to scream about women issues. We’re living in 2015, in a global village, and I’m a citizen of that global village.”
But, as journalists and activists point out, perhaps the focus of a British filmmaker should be on the rape that is endemic to her own country. Nitin Mehta writes in a letter to The Guardian, “India’s Daughter moralises on the atrocity in Delhi by claiming that this is a disease in Indian society … It should also have said that this is a worldwide problem in which Britain has one of the worst records.”
Activist Kavita Krishnan questions the title of the documentary: referring to women in India as daughters, belonging to an assumed patriarchy, is what “the most anti-feminist forces in India have always done.” She claims that the focus of India’s Daughter, and the film’s accompanying campaign against gender violence, give “a sense of India as a place of ignorance and brutality towards women, that inspires both shock and pity, but also call for a rap on the knuckles from the ‘civilised world’ for its ‘brutal attitudes.’”
British activists, too, have since spoken about the double-edged sword of putting an international spotlight on this particular case. “One danger in the UK,” said Rape Crisis for England & Wales’ spokeswoman Katie Russell, “is that the high profile of such stories from other countries might lead some to believe these issues are only relevant elsewhere. But no nation in the world is free from violence against women.”
What still goes unmentioned in mainstream media sources, however, is how the British colonial power in India set a precedent for a court system that would methodically denounce, discredit, and deny the ability of women to seek justice for sexual assault.
In her study of court cases from the British Raj in Calcutta, Durba Ghosh, a professor of History at Cornell University, found that “by demonstrating a pre-existing relationship between a European male defendant and a native female victim, defense attorneys could claim that no violence against the woman had occurred since the perpetrator could be understood to have had access to the body of the woman, even after the relationship had ended.” But, sometimes, not even a pre-existing relationship was needed to justify rape:
In at least a half dozen cases between the years of 1770 and 1840, the courts scrutinized cases of sexual assault committed by European men against native women and decided against conviction, based largely on the understanding that native women who lived among Europeans were assumed by association to be potential conjugal companions to European men.
She recounts horrific cases of two British soldiers, who each raped girls under the age of eleven. Both cases had substantial physical evidence, and several eyewitness accounts. And yet each was dismissed once the soldier’s testimony was given, in which he claimed that the girl did not make a sound or struggle against him, and that she lived near the British man who raped her—proximity, it seemed, was enough to convince the courts that these men had claim to her body.
We hear echoes of this in the rapist Singh’s interview when he says, “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night.” Jyoti’s choice, he reasons, to put herself around men at that time of day is like getting on a bullhorn and announcing your body as being open for business. The logic of a rapist justifying himself is, unsurprisingly, violently flawed. The real problem is the caustic runoff of toxic masculinity that seeps into places where the fate of such logic is determined, like the courtroom.
M. L. Sharma, one of the lawyers for the defendants, stated in an interview that friendships between men and women didn’t belong in Indian society. “We have the best culture,” he continued. “In our culture, there is no place for a woman.” His co-counsel, A. P. Singh, said in a televised interview that if he found out a female relative was “disgracing herself” by engaging in pre-marital activities, “I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”
* * * * *
So in the week following news of Jyoti’s assault, I tell Julie not to worry, that I’m staying safe, but I don’t elaborate. She tries for a few more days to get me to come home early, even sending me itineraries for return flights. When Julie realizes that her tactics aren’t working, she tries a new one: Do I remember her Indian friend, who has family in Hyderabad? Once when visiting relatives, she went to a party where a group of men decided she wasn’t abiding by the standards for a good Muslim woman. They found her later and raped her. Now would I return home?
That’s truly terrible, I say. Please give her a big hug for me. And I’ll see you in a month, after the wedding and the travel I’ve already planned.
I’m already resentful of Julie’s emotionally manipulative tactics to try to get me to come home early. She’s been deeply depressed since I left, she says, crying over Skype. Then she tells me not to worry, she’ll be fine. On the days I don’t have Internet access, she accuses me of ignoring her. Even before my departure, she questioned whether I really needed to leave her, just to be the maid-of-honor in Himadhari’s wedding. So while I believe that Julie is truly concerned for my safety, I believe more so that this story of her friend’s rape is a tactic to frighten me into returning to her side, and I try not to let it influence my decisions.
Though I will maintain my calm in conversations with Julie, and try to tell myself she just cares about me so much, I am appalled by how she is using her friend’s rape story against me. What’s worse, it does affect my decisions; I cannot, in fact, stop thinking about it, and am in a bedroom with my two traveling companions in Jaipur when I break down sobbing, a retching sort of wail—but this is only the most obvious manifestation of a distrust that is beginning to infiltrate all of my social interactions with Indian men. Silly, spontaneous conversations with strangers have always been my favorite part of being in a new place. I’ve made several friends, and met a couple of lovers, by allowing myself to drink with the lawyer in Prague, go for a polar plunge with the college student in Norway, get into a snowball fight with the barista after moving to Boston. But every time a man approaches me now, all I can think about is how I don’t want to fulfill the fears of Julie and my family—though I am not willing to acknowledge that this means I am, in fact, scared for my own safety, that some part of me now believes these guys are dangerous. Men smile at me, and I curl the tips of my mouth into a tight frown. I walk past in a hurry. I stand more than an arm’s distance from the open hand, ready to greet me.
* * * * *
Nine months later, on September 13th, 2013, four of the six men who raped Jyoti were sentenced to death by hanging. One of the rapists was a juvenile when he perpetrated the crime, so could not be tried the same way as the other men under Indian law. The sixth had already hanged himself in prison.
Judge Yogesh Khanna took the time in his verdict to include the implications that any lighter sentence might have on society as a whole:
These are the times when gruesome crimes against women have become rampant and courts cannot turn a blind eye to the need to send a strong deterrent message to the perpetrators of such crimes. The increasing trend of crimes against women can be arrested only once the society realize that there will be no tolerance from any form of deviance against women and more so in extreme cases of brutality such as the present one and hence the criminal justice system must instill confidence in the minds of people especially the women.
A. P. Singh, the same lawyer who proudly pronounced that he would burn his daughter alive to “save face,” accused Khanna, in court, of issuing this sentence to gain political popularity.
A year and a half after this ruling, just before India’s Daughter was released worldwide, the Supreme Court Women Lawyers Association in India called for the disbarment of Singh and M. L. Sharma for their misogynistic remarks during the trial. And on March 6th, 2015, the Bar Council of India responded by issuing a show-call notice to both of them, asking them to make a case for why they should remain allowed to practice law in India when both of them have exhibited professional misconduct.
* * * * *
“I have tried to convey,” writes the activist Krishnan,
that while we in India are in fact engaged in confronting the violence and discrimination against women here, it does not help for people in other countries to imagine that such brutality is India’s ‘cultural’ problem; that India’s ‘backwardness’ is the problem; or that gender violence is ‘worse out there in India.’ I have tried to point out that rating gender violence as ‘worse and better’ in this or that part of the world does not help very much.
* * * * *
Around a week after returning from India, while lying wrapped in Julie’s arms, I ask about her friend’s rape: “Did she ever go to the police?”
“Um, no,” she says. Her body stiffens.
“Why?” I ask. “Was she worried that they wouldn’t take her seriously? Because that’s a huge problem in Ind—”
—and somehow, despite how much I can acknowledge the system of racism that would make rape in India, or any part of the Global South, seem worse than rape in the UK or US, despite my resistance to the concern of my friends and family, I have absorbed their same fears. I am pretending that law enforcement in the United States is more responsive to rape claims than in India. How did that come out of my mouth? I think, but I don’t have much time to reflect on my complicity in the space where rape culture and racism overlap because Julie interrupts—
“It happened here,” she says. “She was raped in Boston.”
“I lied. I’m sorry!” Julie says, squeezing me tighter, probably so that I can’t look her in the eyes. “I just wanted you to come home. I missed you so much.” In a voice too playful, like she already knows the answer, she asks: “Do you forgive me?”
And I, worried that the consequences of our actions might be too much for us, say, “Yes.”
Cover Art by Sarah Hussein
Note: This essay was the runner-up in the 2019 Blood Orange Review Nonfiction Contest, as selected by Aisha Sabatini Sloan.