Indian protesters pay tribute to gang-rape victim, marking a year of speaking up
By Rama Lakshmi
NEW DELHI — Hundreds of students, activists and other residents in New Delhi retraced on Monday the route that a young paramedical student took home from a movie a year ago when she was fatally gang-raped by six men on a moving bus, an incident that fueled a national outcry against sexual assaults.
The three spots that attracted most protesters Monday were the cinema hall that the rape victim came out of after watching the movie “Life of Pi” on the night of Dec. 16, 2012; the stop where she boarded the bus; and the highway where she and her male friend were thrown out of the bus by the six rapists and left to die.
“We are here to map her route. We are reclaiming our right to these streets,” said Divya Pant, a 21-year-old banking student wearing a red T-shirt that said “Speak Up.”
Candlelight vigils, floral tributes, protest songs and cleansing fire rituals were performed in many parts of New Delhi to remember the incident. Marchers held up colorful hand-written placards saying “Silence hides violence,” “What part of no don’t you understand?” and “Raise your sons and daughters the same way.”
The 23-year-old woman, popularly called the “fearless one” in Hindi here, died from severe internal injuries in a hospital in Singapore, but many observers say the debate here about women’s safety has shifted irreversibly since then.
On Monday, the front page of Indian Express newspaper carried a headline saying: “In the year since gang rape silence around sexual assault shattered.” The news channel NDTV 24x7 ran a program called “The Day That Changed India.”
In the past year, Indians have conducted unprecedented public conversations about rampant rape and sexual harassment of women, something that was previously tolerated silently by many. The national mood forced the government to pass a strict anti-rape law, which has helped charge many, including a hugely popular religious guru, a prominent magazine editor and a college administrator, for sexual assault in recent months.
“What do we want?” shouted Swara Bhaskar, a young Bollywood actress and one of the protest organizers, outside the movie hall. Men and women around her shouted back in chorus, “Freedom to study, freedom to work, freedom to watch movies, freedom to say no.”
As the crowd waved long red, pink and black silken veils as flags, Bhaskar said: “We have used these veils to cover our bodies for years. Today, we will turn them into flags.”
When the marchers reached the bus stop, many shop owners and onlookers came out to take pictures with cellphones. Some placed marigolds and incense sticks at the stop.
Protesters said the past year had been an extraordinary one for women’s issues in India.
“I have changed in the last one year. I am here to not just remember her, but also tell everybody loudly that I will not forget what happened,” said Yugansha Malhotra, 20, an undergraduate studying history at Delhi University. Malhotra said she took part in the massive protests in the capital last December. “It was the first time I had taken part in any public protest; it was first time I voiced my anger. Now nobody can tell me to be quiet again.”
Malhotra volunteers with a new online portal called Safe City, which was launched soon after the gang-rape protest last year. The Web site crowdsources women’s responses to map unsafe parts of New Delhi.
Even though the voices against assault have grown, Indian cities continue to remain unsafe for women, and the number of rapes has not abated.
The protest outside the cinema hall also attacked embedded notions of aggressive masculinity in Indian society.
Singer Sona Mohapatra sang about the “coward's face hiding behind the macho moustache.”
Elsewhere in New Delhi, a group screened a documentary film called “Men Against The Tide” featuring men who have fought for women.
One of the men featured in the film, Mahadev Bajabalakar, a pomegranate farmer from western India, was among the marchers.
“I was like any other man. I used to shout at my wife, beat her, take out my frustrations on her,” Bajabalakar said. “When I started to change and began speaking about respecting women, villagers mocked me. It wasn’t easy. I am here to tell the men that they, too, can change without embarrassment. They can become real men.”
At the protest, volunteers distributed a tiny yellow-and-black booklet to marchers called ‘Tips for teenagers and young adults” that appeared to encapsulate the past year’s debate about who to blame for sexual assaults.
Tips offered to women included to say no loudly and firmly, report the incident, and don’t blame yourself. Also, an “Indian dress is not safer than a western dress.”
Tips offered to men were, “Avoid being macho, don’t assume that women like being teased, women who dress daringly do not deserve harassment.”
Finally, when the marchers reached the spot where the woman and her friend were dumped on the road, the mood turned somber and introspective. That night, for nearly half an hour, the woman lay by the road naked and pleading for help as motorists drove past.
“It was us in those cars that night, the cars that did not stop to help her,” said Bhaskar, the Bollywood actress and protest organizer. “We are also involved in this horrible crime. Let us pledge that we will never look away again.”
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