Paying tribute to Nirbhaya on a march in New Deli. Photo: ramesh_lalwani, under a CC License.
So ‘Nirbhaya’, the one without fear, as someone aptly nicknamed her, died in a Singapore hospital on 29 December 2012, after an arduous two week battle for her life. The rape and murder of the 23-year-old student has triggered an unprecedented outpouring of grief and anger all over India. Probably, not since Gandhi’s assassination has the country seen mass mourning of this kind.
Nirbhaya, whose real identity has not been publicly released, died because she fought back. She first fought the men who were beating up her male companion. Enraged, they turned on her. She bit one of the attackers who then beat her up brutally, and mercilessly, with an iron rod. She fought bravely and fiercely for her life for two whole weeks, though her intestines and her stomach turned gangrenous from the pounding she had received. The name ‘Nirbhaya’ was truly made for her.
Her story has been on the news worldwide. Thousands have assembled to protest and demand justice. Some of the protests turned ugly because hooligans and thugs, both political and criminal, jumped on the bandwagon to take advantage of the crowds. They threw stones at the police and turned a peaceful protest into a violent, messy affair.
Our only hope now is that Nirbhaya’s death marks a turning point in India. That future generations of our women may walk their streets safely and securely, free from the fear of sexual molestation and rape. For two weeks now, the papers have been full of old rape cases resurrected while demanding justice for the victims.
I would like to share a letter I was inspired to write to the One Billion Rising campaign group. My first letter of 2013:
I pray on the eve of this New Year, for a new dawn for all our women, not just in India or Asia but everywhere in the world.
I pray that Nirbhaya’s death may not be in vain. She died because she was brave, because she fought back. May her spirit live in all of us.
Can we ask everyone, including the media and womens’ groups, to call her ‘Nirbhaya’ and stop using ‘gang rape victim’. She should be in the textbooks as an example to our children of bravery and heroic resistance. The image of those who raped her should inspire repugnance in our children towards the concept of rape, sexual violence and domestic violence. We need to begin campaigns in all our schools, on what constitutes disrespect to our girls and women. We need this taken to every village, every mohalla, every city, every basti and every middle class, elite school in the country. Inappropriate behaviour which includes sexist remarks, objectionable jokes should not be laughed away or ignored politely. We need to take sexual harassment, in all its forms, seriously.
I have had mail from dalit and adivasi friends asking why we, the feminist women and men of India, and our Prime Minister and high profile people such as Jaya Bachchan, do not weep copiously or hold candlelight vigils when they, India’s dalits and adivasi people, are routinely raped, every single day in our country. I have no answer. I can only hang my head in shame.
I think we need to introspect, really seriously, to look at our movements. Within us, in NGO’s and civil society groups, there are men who exploit the women within. Many of us know who they are. Yet the victims have wept bitter tears and are moved on. These men remain predators and choose new victims because they are apparently above reproach. Nothing happens because they are great leaders of mass movements or grass roots groups. Should they be allowed to continue, without shame? Abuse is generally hushed up; the boys’ clubs, close ranks.
We have screamed at the politicians and the policemen. And indeed, the wrath of India’s women should show itself if society is to change. But if a man from our family, our class, our set, rapes the domestic worker in our home or colony will we take action or buy silence by paying off the victim?
I believe that we are at an important crossroad in the history of our country and of the women’s movement. I pray that the struggle will continue and that we manage to create a better world for our daughters, our sisters.
May the One Billion continue to Rise.