December 12, 2013 10:46 pm

Portrait: ‘Nirbhaya’

The gang rape of a student in New Delhi sparked a revolution in attitudes to sexual violence
©Getty

A protester on the streets of Delhi last year

She was one of millions of aspiring young, urban Indian women – smart, sociable, energetic and determined to better herself by pursuing educational opportunities never available to her village-born, working-class parents. But in the last two weeks of her life, the 23-year-old became the focus of the nation, as she battled to survive grievous injuries inflicted during a gang rape on board a New Delhi bus.

The viciousness of the attack and the everyday setting in which the assault occurred has forced India’s people and policy makers to confront the country’s pervasive culture of violence against women.

As the student – dubbed “Nirbhaya” (the fearless one) by Indian media – fought for her life, thousands of women, and their male relatives and friends, gathered in New Delhi to express outrage and how unsafe they too felt in their own daily lives. When the young woman died, on December 29 2012, protests gave way to anguished candlelit vigils in cities nationwide.

The ramifications of that single fatality have been huge throughout 2013. “It was a watershed moment,” says Kalpana Vishwanathan, adviser for Safe Delhi, a project run by the women’s advocacy group Jagori. “I don’t think anywhere in the world has the entire society taken up an issue of sexual violence. Rape and sex is being talked about in living rooms – that is a profound change. Everyone’s talking about it: grandmothers, grandfathers, children, parents.”

The young woman’s father, Badrinath Singh, left his village for New Delhi in 1978 and worked as an airport baggage handler. His daughter, born in May 1989 – and who cannot be named under Indian law – attended government schools and was highly motivated. Her parents say she used to cry if she didn’t come top of her class. At 15, she started tutoring children in her working-class neighbourhood. She dreamt of becoming a doctor but her parents could not afford it. Instead, she studied physiotherapy in the Himalayan town of Dehradun, working at casual jobs to help with her expenses.

At the time of the attack, on December 16, she was due to start her first job at a New Delhi hospital the next day. She and a male friend had been to see the film Life of Pi. As they made their way home, a bus pulled over and a young bus conductor beckoned them on board, saying the vehicle was going their way.

But the bus that the pair boarded was being taken on a joyride by a bus driver and five friends, who had been drinking and were looking to “have some fun”, in the words of one of their later confessions. The men knocked the physiotherapist’s friend unconscious, then repeatedly raped the young woman, brutalised her with an iron rod and threw her on the side of the road, leaving her for dead.

Even as she lay critically injured in hospital, however, “Nirbhaya” displayed her fighting spirit. Unable to speak at first, she wrote a note to her doctors: “I want to live for my parents and brothers.” Later, she insisted on taking the tubes out of her mouth so she could give her account of the attack to an official magistrate for use in court.

“She did not want to die – she did not want to give up,” her mother, Asha Devi, told me. “As the magistrate was leaving after she gave her statement, she gestured for her to come back, and told her ‘Ma’am, please get me justice.’”

Initially, India’s government was caught off guard by the protests, and responded by sealing the heart of the city. “They couldn’t believe there would be actual political fallout from a gang rape,” says Lakshmi Chaudhry, an editor with news website First Post. But parliament swiftly passed a tough anti-rape and anti-sexual violence law – which had been stalled for years.

Nirbhaya’s parents, Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh, in her bedroom©Eyevine

Nirbhaya’s parents, Asha Devi and Badrinath Singh, in her bedroom

As India marks the first anniversary of the attack, reports of gang rape and other violent assaults on women and girls in India have risen sharply. But women’s rights activists say the increase signals a positive change in a society where families had once hushed up any assault on their daughters – and police routinely advised rape victims to marry their attackers, rather than pursue justice through the legal system.

“Before when such a thing happened, families were so embarrassed they would not talk about it,” Devi says as we sit in her sitting room, the only decoration a pennant from the government honouring her daughter. “The fact that women kept quiet allowed all this crime,” she says. “Because of all this protest, people are beginning to talk and are coming out to report rape and that is huge progress. That is the biggest change.”

Last month, India’s Supreme Court set up a committee to investigate allegations of sexual assault by a now-retired judge. Also in November, the influential editor of news magazine Tehelka was arrested after a female journalist accused him of sexual assault.

“Women are coming forward and not feeling like they have to be ashamed,” Chaudhry says. “There is a new generation of young, educated, urban woman who are really vocal.”

The courage of “Nirbhaya”, who died in such a public way, has given many women the strength to protest – helping to break the silence that has surrounded the persecution of women in India.

Amy Kazmin is the FT’s south Asia correspondent

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