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Delhi’s winter of discontent…Becomes a spring of hope

By Manjima Bhattacharjya

The nation-wide protests after the gang rape in Delhi have finally broken the silence around sexual violence, put women’s rights on the political agenda, and established that rape is not a sexual act but a legally punishable crime

An edited version of this article was first published in print in the UK, in The World Weekly magazine, 03/52, 2013.

An innocuous SMS brought it to my notice. “Switch on the TV News.” Nothing could have prepared me for the images I was about to see. Thousands (I repeat, thousands) of people, largely young college students, had gathered in the heart of Delhi outside the security cordon that encloses Rashtrapati Bhavan. It took a while to digest the fact that the sea of people was here to protest – rape? Not because I didn’t think rape was worth protesting about. But because the silence around sexual violence in India was a deep vault to which the combination had been forgotten. That last click in the combination was a horrific incident in which a 23-year-old woman and her friend were brutally assaulted as they returned from watching a movie, Life of Pi, one night. They got onto a bus that they thought was public transport but was actually a private bus (used though for transporting public otherwise) being taken for a joyride by the driver and his friends who proceeded to ‘gang rape’ the woman, beat her friend, torture them both and insert iron rods into her with such force that they ripped her internal organs. It is said she put up a good fight. Later in hospital, the doctors commended her will to survive. Thirteen days later, she died of multiple organ failure -- no that’s inaccurate, she died of rape, in Singapore where the government had controversially air-lifted her.

The case was one amongst many – statistics in the country are dire: 97% of all women have experienced some form of abuse, every 22 minutes one woman is raped (1), not unlike the rest of the world (in the USA, a rape is reported every five minutes (2); 400,000 women are sexually assaulted annually in England (3)). Delhi in particular had already had over 500 rape complaints filed that year (but only one conviction so far). But for some reason, the brutality and violence of that particular incident became a tipping point or that last straw on the camel’s back for a so-far silent public. Already primed for some coming-out-on-the-streets (thanks to an anti-corruption movement that stirred the middle class to action last year, and campaigns like the Pink Chaddi and the Slutwalks led by young women through social media) the response was spontaneous and unstoppable. Even with the water cannons, teargas and lathicharge that the police employed to disperse the crowd, protests continued for over 10 days and nights. As one layer of young angry protesters faced the water cannons in Delhi’s foggy and icy cold winter, another layer would emerge to replace the first. What did these protestors want? Justice for the 23-year-old, the rapists punished, they wanted to show their anger and frustration at their un-freedom in what they knew to be a free country and their utter despair at the inaction of the state. Mostly though, they just wanted to be heard, and to hear an assurance from their government that it cared, that something would be done.

But the state did not respond – other than sending 39 sections of the Central Reserve Police Force including the Rapid Action Force (usually reserved for terrorists), six of the Central Industrial Security Force (usually providing security to the industrial sector) and the entire Delhi police machinery to crackdown on the protestors, and shutting down 10 metro stations to the heart of the city so people wouldn’t be able to get there (they did). Insensitive statements from politicians (including one from the president’s son, also a parliamentarian, that the female protestors were only “dented and painted women chasing two minutes of fame”; one from a female opposition leader that the victim having been raped was now a “living corpse”; one from the home minister that if he spoke to the young people gathered, he’d have to speak to Maoist militia next) shocked people one after the other. The prime minister made a weak, scripted speech on television three days after the protests started. The deep misogyny and absolute lack of regard for women’s rights on the political agenda was laid embarrassingly open to an aghast public.

In the last two weeks, this public has spoken of little other than rape. Scores of brilliant articles and heartrending blog-posts have been generated. The media has kept up an unrelenting dialogue with activists, lawyers, police, politicians, celebrities and ordinary citizens. Women have come out and told the men in their lives and friends on social media the kind of sexual terror they’ve endured on the streets of their cities – Delhi and otherwise – for the last 30 years. Something many had kept to themselves for the last, well, 30 years. Mothers accompanied their daughters to the protests. In bedrooms, living rooms, dining halls, around office lunch tables, people spoke of what it was like to be a woman in this country. They spoke not of keeping their daughters home, but teaching their sons how to behave. Not of shame and honour, but of respect and compassion. These are no small achievements for women’s rights in India.

Women’s rights isn’t a new issue here. Since the 1970s a strong women’s movement has consistently shown the massive gap between the constitutional equality Indian women are guaranteed and the realities they live in. It played a critical role in making what was seen as private matters – dowry harassment, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, sexual assault – a crime and a matter of public concern, and injecting ideas of equality and rights into the mainstream discourse as well as into the DNA of coming generations of women. The movement’s form has changed over the years, going from an assortment of autonomous collectives and political women’s factions to a motley crew of women’s rights NGOs, feminist collectives, academics, individual writers and artists, women’s factions of left-leaning political parties, and an increasing cadre of feminist-leaning social media warriors. The protests have put a spotlight on many of the things women’s movements have been saying for years, but also compelled the movement to review its own position on issues such as capital punishment and retributive justice.  

Amidst the calls for helplines, fast track courts, death penalty or castration for rapists, a smaller group of saner voices have been saying other things: move your gaze from the punishment to the process. Let’s look at what happens when women call a helpline. Let’s look at what happens when she goes to the police. Let’s look at how we bring up our men. Let’s look at patriarchy. The answers are not pleasant: routinely police refuse to file complaints, treat the victim as a criminal, avoid investigation as it’s not a priority and occasionally rape the complainant themselves. Stop the two-finger test done on victims to test elasticity of their vagina and assess past sexual history. Stop using lie detectors on victims. Stop making a ‘woman’s character’ a central part of the defense of accused rapists. Twenty-six fast track courts have been promised in the last week to speed up rape cases – but what of the types of judgments we are accustomed to in rape cases, judges who tell victims to marry their rapists? What of the terrible rates of conviction and the grave injustice of the definition of ‘rape’ (covering only penile insertion) in use? A commission called the Justice Verma Commission comprising three members, including one woman judge, has been set up inviting recommendations for changes to the rape law – a first in itself. (Even though women’s groups have been collaboratively working on a new Sexual Assault Bill and Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill for over eight years now and pushed for it repeatedly with the government.)

Then there are the frustrating contradictions of a democracy. An email from an angry citizen demanding chemical castration for rapists is treated just the same as one from over a thousand women’s rights activists who’ve worked on cases for decades and have measured, practical, less populist recommendations. Six thousand emails were received by the commission within a few days of the call (given the deep digital divide in the country, this can hardly be called representative), but the rush to ‘get out a new law’ has diverted attention from the hard introspection and basic reforms urgently needed within the police and the judiciary. Women’s groups are cautious about the way forward, not wanting the government to succumb to populism and attempting to build dialogue all around, as much with a public (who may or may not segue into introspecting on the everyday sexisms that contribute to a culture that doesn’t support women’s rights) as with a government that is increasingly opaque and not given to much dialogue other than occasionally granting of an audience by ministers to stakeholder groups.

In the end, the protests did three things: it put women’s rights on the political agenda, it brought home to a vote-hungry party system of governance that women are a constituency, and it established, after all these years, that rape is not a sexual act but a legally punishable, socially despicable, crime. In parliament, the discussions have gone back to the peculiarities of Indian politics, the symbolism and posturing that it rides on and collects votes based on: naming the new rape law after the victim, giving her a posthumous national bravery award, an unusually large amount of compensation for her family, maybe a memorial in her name. They’ve gone back to her, and not to rape and women’s rights, because after a forced foray into these issues, they’ve decided it’s just too uncomfortable to deal with. But the public is still talking, and it’s not unusual to see groups of people out on the streets holding placards, lighting candles in memory of the victim or just walking and taking back Delhi.

Years, decades, generations of a tolerance of a ‘rape culture’ burst at the seams this winter. This is a far cry from those days when we were 20 feminists in black kurtas distributing pamphlets titled ‘Break the Silence’ to reluctant passers-by at a busy crossing trying to pry open a conversation on sexual violence. This is what it’s like when the silence is broken. Delhi’s winter of discontent has become a spring of hope for many of us around the country. Even if things go back to being the same, things can never be the same again.


  1. According to National Crime Records Bureau reports, 2010.

Infochange News & Features, January 2013