Bureau Report + BBC
NEW DELHI: On this day 10 years ago, a young woman was gang-raped and brutally assaulted on a bus in the Indian capital, Delhi. She died a few days later from her injuries.
As she lay in a hospital bed, fighting for her life, the press named her Nirbhaya – the fearless one. Since rape victims can’t be named under Indian law, the name stuck.
The main accused, the bus driver, was found dead inside the jail a few months after the crime. Four others were hanged in March 2020 while a juvenile convict was released after three years – the maximum punishment allowed under law.
The crime changed the way Indians discussed gender violence and altered many lives – none more than that of Asha Devi, Nirbhaya’s mother.
A quiet housewife who’d spent her years looking after her home and children has, over the past decade, transformed into an activist and a campaigner for women’s safety, fighting for justice first for her own daughter and now for “all of India’s daughters”.
Two years ago – on the 8th anniversary of the attack on her daughter and a few months after the hangings – she pledged to “fight for justice for all rape victims”.
“This way, I’ll be able to pay tribute to my daughter,” she said.
Despite a crippling leg pain that requires daily visits to a physiotherapist, the 56-year-old has been leading a small group of people on a candle-light march in Delhi’s Dwarka district every evening for the past five weeks.
They are demanding justice for a 19-year-old woman who was gang raped and murdered 10 years ago. Three men who were given the death penalty for the crime were recently let off by India’s top court which said there was no clinching evidence that the men were guilty.
A review petition has been filed in the top court, but Asha Devi and others have been holding protests to ensure the “Chhawla rape case is not forgotten”.
“Some days 10 people turn out, some days there are 15, but we march every single day,” Asha Devi told me when I visited her home recently.
“We want the court order to be reversed. They [the alleged rapists] must go back to jail.”
The day after the Supreme Court order, Asha Devi went to meet the victim’s parents.
“I got justice and I don’t have to go out and do anything anymore, but I remember how I used to sit outside the courtroom and cry, sometimes alone. I think that should never happen to anyone else. So I went and sat with her parents and wept with them,” she says.
She recently also lent her support to an online petition calling for justice for Bilkis Bano after 11 men convicted for raping her and murdering several of her family members were prematurely freed by the Gujarat government.
A trust Asha Devi set up in her daughter’s name to help rape survivors and advise victims of domestic violence has retired judges, lawyers, police officials and activists as volunteers. Over the past few years, they have worked with dozens of families.
Her presence often spurs police and authorities into action, but Asha Devi says that 10 years after her daughter died, nothing has changed on the ground.
In 2012, the year Nirbhaya was attacked, India recorded 24,923 rape cases. In 2021, the last year for which crime data is available, the number had risen to 31,677.
“Laws are made on paper, promises are made, but there’s poor implementation,” says Asha Devi. “If this continues, it will take away our faith in justice.”