NEW DELHI — India’s Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence for four of the six men convicted of raping and murdering a student on a bus in New Delhi six years ago, in a case that shocked India and the wider world.
While the woman cannot be identified as per Indian law, the press has in the past referred to her as “Nirbhaya,” or “the fearless one.”
Six years before the #MeToo movement, this was the crime that transformed India’s attitude toward sexual violence: The victim was a 23-year-old student on her way back home after watching a film in New Delhi. She was accompanied by a male friend.
Unable to find an auto-rickshaw, the two hailed a private bus — driven by the accused and his companions. The five men and one juvenile on board then thrashed the woman’s companion, raped the woman, threw them both off the bus, and finally tried to run them over.
The woman died in hospital 13 days after the assault, due to the severe injuries she suffered as a result of the gang rape. Her companion, who survived with injuries, testified in court against all six accused.
Nirbhaya’s murder made worldwide headlines and sparked massive civilian protests across India.
The sheer brutality with which the young woman and her companion were attacked, that the gang drove around the city for several hours assaulting the pair without being discovered, and finally, the horrifying fact that the woman did not receive help immediately even after she was discovered, all drew attention to India’s failing law and order, particularly when it came to women.
The public outpouring of rage also led to major amendments to India’s rape laws — such as increasing punishments for gang rape and acid attacks, and also expanding the scope of what the law recognizes as sexually abusive behavior.
Today's ruling by India's highest court leaves the four men convicted with few options remaining to prevent themselves being hanged, one being a presidential pardon on the grounds of mercy.
In 2013, one of the six accused, Ram Singh, was found dead in his prison cell, having reportedly killed himself. The sixth member of the group, the juvenile, was sentenced to a reform home for three years as per Indian law, and now works as a cook somewhere on India’s southern coast.
Of the four men still in prison, three had filed a petition contesting the court’s decision to sentence them to death, but the ruling will apply to all four.
Hours before the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on Monday the victim’s mother, Asha Devi, told a South Asian newswire service that the system had failed women. "It has been six years since the incident took place. Similar incidents are still taking place every day. Our system has failed us. Even after so many years, we see cases of brutal rape and murder of young women. This should stop at the earliest."
Despite its amended rape laws, India continues to be an extremely dangerous country for women.
A recent survey ranked India as worse off than both Saudi Arabia and Syria when it comes to gender rights.
While the survey and its sources were hotly debated by sections of the Indian government, just a day before the Supreme Court’s judgment, a school principal, two teachers and 13 pupils were arrested for the gang rape of a 13-year-old girl in Bihar, a state in eastern India.
Meanwhile, in a separate incident, the rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl from north India has taken a political turn with lawyers for the accused blaming militants and communal politics for the crime.