Indian protesters pay tribute to gang-rape victim, marking a year of speaking out

December 16, 2013

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 on a moving bus, an incident that fueled a national outcry against sexual assaults.

The three spots that attracted the most protesters were the movie theater that the rape victim came out of after watching the film “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 commemorate the incident. Marchers held up colorful handwritten placards that said: “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. Many observers say the debate here about women’s safety has shifted irreversibly since then.

On Monday, the front page of the Indian Express newspaper carried this headline: “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. The national mood forced the government to pass a strict anti-rape law, which has led to the filing of sexual assault charges against a hugely popular religious guru, a prominent magazine editor and a college administrator in recent months.

“What do we want?” shouted Swara Bhaskar, a young Bollywood actress and one of the protest organizers, outside the movie theater. 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, 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 and took pictures with cellphones. Some placed marigolds and incense sticks at the site.

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 history student at the University of Delhi. 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,” she said. “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 last year’s protests. The Web site uses crowdsourcing to map unsafe parts of New Delhi.

Despite the outcry, Indian cities remain unsafe for women, and the number of rapes has not abated.

The protest outside the movie theater also attacked embedded notions of aggressive masculinity in Indian society.

Singer Sona Mohapatra sang about the “coward’s face hiding behind the macho mustache.”

Elsewhere in New Delhi, a group screened a documentary called “Men Against the Tide” featuring men who have fought for women.

One of those 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 tiny yellow-and-black booklets to marchers titled “Tips for Teenagers and Young Adults.” The booklets appeared to encapsulate the past year’s debate about whom to blame for sexual assaults.

Suggestions for women included saying no loudly and firmly, reporting the incident and avoiding self-blame. The booklet also said that an “Indian dress is not safer than a western dress.”

Men were told to “avoid being macho,” not to “assume that women like being teased” and that “women who dress daringly do not deserve harassment.”

When the marchers reached the spot where the woman and her friend were dumped on the road, the mood turned somber and introspective. On that night last year, for nearly a half-hour, the woman lay by the road 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.”

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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