Unprecedented protests, change in laws: How the Nirbhaya case moved the needle

The Nirbhaya case forced a nation that had grown indifferent to news of violence against women to finally look inwards.
Unprecedented protests, change in laws: How the Nirbhaya case moved the needle
Unprecedented protests, change in laws: How the Nirbhaya case moved the needle
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Seven years ago, on the morning of December 17, 2012, India woke up to the news of the gruesome gangrape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in south-west Delhi and a nation went numb.

Horrifying details of the gruesome crime pierced the country’s conscience, one that had grown indifferent to news of violence against women.

Within hours, India poured onto the streets. Protests broke out across New Delhi, with a collective roar demanding justice and safety for all women in the national capital. The outrage overflowed across state borders, to a point the police couldn’t control the fury of the protesters Protesters, seething for justice, decided that it was high time that action be taken and held protests in Raisina Hill. According to The Hindu, on December 22, clashes between the Delhi police and people at India’s power centre saw 125 teargas shells being lobbed, leading to 35 protesters being injured.

The rape survivor, who was battling for her life, was quickly dubbed ‘Nirbhaya’, or ‘Fearless’. While Nirbhaya succumbed to her injuries in a hospital in Singapore on December 29, the outrage only intensified in a country where the fault of women’s crimes was still largely placed on the woman’s actions, rather than the crime perpetrated by the accused.

On the day her mortal remains were flown back to the country for her final rites, large parts of central Delhi were shut off, metro stations were closed and Section 144, barring the assembly of more than four persons was imposed.

Protests continued after her death. Four thousand people gathered at Jantar Mantar hours after her death, and a protest march was held across the city. The usual cries for peace from politicians were not enough to appease the country this time. What's more, insensitive words from people like rape-accused godman Asaram, who held Nirbhaya responsible for the attack, and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, who glibly said, "boys will be boys," only fueled the anger.

And in the wake of these massive demonstrations, the needle slowly moved — the language surrounding rape put the burden on the perpetrator, not the victim. Calls for justice were swift, and the Delhi Police had the suspects in custody within 24 hours, and had filed the chargesheet on January 3, 2013.

Whether it was the visceral anger or the fact that the woman’s parents continued their unwavering support for their daughter, the conversation had finally moved on from what the woman was wearing or what she was doing. Instead, the country was now discussing how someone could even carry out such a crime. The focus was on ensuring that the perpetrators were punished for their crimes. It helped channel anger, forcing authorities to act swiftly and do their jobs.

Days after the crime, the Delhi High Court cleared the decks for five fast-track courts to hear cases of sexual assault. In a matter of two weeks, the fast-track court began hearing the matter, and delivered its verdict in nine months. Fast-track courts have been established in various states since.

Exactly one week after the crime, a committee headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice JS Varma was constituted to look into the Criminal Law and recommend amendments for quicker trials and enhanced punishments for crimes against women. Recommendations of the committee included laws related to rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, child sexual abuse, medical examination of victims and more. The committee recommended against the death penalty even in rarest of rare cases, or reducing the age of a juvenile from 18 to 16 (However, the Juvenile Justice Bill passed in 2015 says that the accused who are above 16 years of age to be treated as adults in heinous crimes).

It was following this that the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, now known as the Nirbhaya Act that made changes to the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act, was passed. It widened the definition of rape, defined consent and changed the phrasing of the law that lifted the burden from the woman.

Later on, it even led to the creation of a Nirbhaya Fund in the 2013 budget, where Rs 1,000 crore was allocated towards schemes for the safety, security and empowerment of women.

On February 1, 2020 — seven years, one month and 15 days after the heinous crime — Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Akshay Kumar Singh and Pawan Gupta will be hanged. Ram Singh, the fifth convict took his own life in Tihar Jail where he was incarcerated. The sixth convict was a juvenile at the time of the crime, and served three years in a reform facility before being released.

Still, things haven’t changed much in India. Rape continues to be one of the most common crimes in India, with the 2018 statistics showing that there were 89 rapes each day of the year. Around 89% of the Nirbhaya Fund sanctioned has not been utilised, and no state has utilised over 50% of its funds. Things are grim, but if there was something that the Nirbhaya protests showed us, is that there is a glimmer of hope, and the fight will continue.

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