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In India, a Fatal Gang Rape Sparks Violent Protests, Demands for More Protection

December 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: The victim of a horrific gang rape in India died tonight at a hospital in Singapore. The attack enraged much of the country, and the reaction caught the government off guard.

Ray Suarez has more.

RAY SUAREZ: The fury across India has been building for nearly two weeks, since the 23-year-old medical student was gang-raped and then thrown from this bus in New Delhi.

Sexual assaults are rife in India, especially in New Delhi, where, on average, there’s a rape reported every 18 hours. But, this time, the extreme brutality of the crime ignited outrage that turned violent with street battles between protesters and police. The protests have continued this week, amid growing accusations police and other officials are dismissive of sex crimes.

SOHINI GHOSH, protester: It is completely sad on the part of the government, especially since they are doing nothing about the innumerable rape incidents which are happening around us.

RAY SUAREZ: In response, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced yesterday the creation of new committees to improve women’s safety and expedite assault trials.

Today, he reiterated his government’s commitment to justice.

PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN SINGH, India: We share the anguish and the anger of the country for this heinous crime. You have my assurance this government is committed to bringing the guilty to justice as soon as possible.

RAY SUAREZ: Six suspects have been arrested in connection with the gang rape. And last week, India’s home minister said the government is moving toward applying the death penalty in such cases.

But other Indian officials have triggered new anger with their public comments. Yesterday, Abhijeet Mukherjee, a lawmaker and son of India’s president, dismissed the protesters as women with too much makeup and dark purposes.

ABHIJEET MUKHERJEE, member of Indian Parliament (through translator): I believe there must be some hidden agenda of some political party. The protests that have taken place in Delhi and the magnitude shows that there are hidden motives of political parties in this matter. The government should look into that angle.

RAY SUAREZ: Mukherjee’s comments drew a fierce backlash, and he apologized for them today.

Meanwhile, another tragedy, mourners gathered yesterday in Punjab state for the funeral of a 17-year-old girl who reported being gang-raped in November. She killed herself Wednesday after saying she’d been humiliated by police. And, yesterday, the government said it would begin a directory of people convicted of sexual crimes.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier, I spoke with NPR South Asia correspondent Julie McCarthy, who’s reporting this story from Delhi.

Julie, there are tens of thousands of rapes in India. There are 40,000 rape cases currently in the courts. Why has this case caught the national imagination?

JULIE MCCARTHY, NPR: Well, I think what caught the imagination of the people was this horrendous attack on this young woman, this 23-year-old girl who was — who is at the heart of this upheaval in India.

After the shock subsided, there was anger, and it poured out into the streets. So you had a very graphic symbol around which people rallied.

And the protests in many ways were spontaneous. They were driven by the I.T. revolution that is India. Social media played a huge role in assembling people, getting out the message, what were they doing, where were they doing it.

And the protesters were demanding justice for this young woman who investigators said had been gang-raped on a moving bus that passed through police checkpoints as this assault was taking place.

So there was dismay at the police, who had long been criticized for their ineffectiveness over handling violent crimes against women, of violent crimes period.

RAY SUAREZ: The police came down hard on the protesters. Did that have the effect of bringing more people to the cause?

JULIE MCCARTHY: On the second day where they had shut down India Gate, which is the central city landmark of India — that happened on a Sunday — it did have the effect of creating a cat and mouse, a game between the police.

The protesters were extremely angry, for example, that no one from the government had come out to address them on the Saturday, when they had been tear-gassed and water-cannoned as they approached the president’s residence. So, there was a sense of a government that was tone-deaf and wasn’t hearing the people.

And that just made them more enraged. So, in many ways, it was an invitation for them to come back. So, yes, the crackdown not only angered people, but I think it generated a lot of heat. That said, on Sunday, which were the especially violent — especially violent protests, the numbers were a lot fewer.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you talk about tone-deaf politicians. Have the nation’s leaders heard the protesters now? Are they responding in a different way?

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, they’re trying. I mean, the government has responded with what many governments often respond to in crisis management situations, commissions and inquiries.

Emotions are running very high. And the call for capital punishment is an expression of the public’s outrage, and you hear that a lot. And the government is said to be considering that.

Now, of course, the critics say, well, look, this is not — what’s not needed here is greater punishment, but what is needed is better investigative and prosecutorial capacity; that is what will help the problem.

But while there were — while there was this need, you know, for policing reforms and better forensics and more efficient criminal justice system, the contours of the debate, Ray, are coming down this to this. How do we change attitudes toward women?

I mean, Indian women complain about a mentality that springs from centuries of tradition of defining women as objects and being subjugated. And young men said to me that the women are oftentimes seen as the repository of the family honor. So if a woman is the victim of a sexual assault, oftentimes, she is seen as having been dishonored the family, rather than seeing the rapist as the one who has dishonored her.

So a huge shift in attitude is what many say is called for. But back to the government, yes, it was caught flat-footed, no question about it. For example, the home minister insisted that he wasn’t obligated to talk to any demonstrators, and ended up equating them to Maoist rebels. So that — that was a comparison that really enraged a lot of people.

RAY SUAREZ: During this same week, the victim of another notorious rape committed suicide. Has that just added fuel to the fire?

JULIE MCCARTHY: All the while this furor was erupting over the gang rape in Delhi, details emerged of this harrowing case in the Punjab where a 17-year-old girl committed suicide.

She was reported to have been distraught about being gang-raped during Diwali this year, the Hindu Festival of Lights, and being harassed by the police, who also refused to register her case.

So, again, more of these cases are coming out. And I suppose they’re hitting the headlines harder because of the — because the — because the country is in a receptive mood to see them.

You know, this is a venting. These demonstrations are a venting that springs from something very deep, a deep vein of frustration about violence against women generally and about the impunity for the perpetrators. The vast majority of rapes that are reported do not result in conviction. And those conviction rates have declined decade on decade.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Julie McCarthy, thanks so much for being with us.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Thank you, Ray.