Students’ outrage and anguish over high profile rape case

The December New Delhi rape of the unnamed medical student who died as a result of her injuries continues to huge student-led protests and candlelight vigils in the capital and elsewhere in India over the lack of government action to protect women from sexual harassment and rape.

“She was doing what all of us do – go out to dinner with friends and catch a movie,” said Nidhi Panda, a second-year student of Sri Venkateswara College of Delhi University, speaking about the brutal gang rape of a university student in December.

The 23-year-old unnamed victim was picked up along with her male companion on 16 December by a bus in New Delhi on which the rape took place. With horrific injuries, she was thrown, along with her companion, into the street from the moving vehicle and later died in Singapore where she had been flown for medical treatment.

Five men have been charged with her murder, according to Delhi police. But protests have continued for weeks.

The Munirka area of Delhi where the victim was picked up is an area close to Jawaharlal Nehru University “where a large student population lives. All of us are anguished but also very angry and scared,” said Panda.

“Students are speaking the language that we as activists had never heard them speak before,” said lawyer and equality consultant Naina Kapur, saying it was great to see young people wake up to the issues.

“Young women are talking about sexual assault and rape openly. Young men are marching and supporting the movement and acknowledging that there is a problem. This is a huge move forward and gives me hope,” said Kapur.

While protesters gathered in public places across Delhi and India, university and college campuses have become the hub of student activism, which has spread well beyond the women’s groups that have battled alone in the past, taking the government by surprise at their intensity.

More than a thousand Delhi University students, teachers and members of women's organisations took to the streets in anger last week to protest against the “state’s failure” in ensuring the safety of women.

A two-hour protest march called the 'walk for freedom' was led by the All India Student's Association (AISA).

“Her death will not go in vain. She has managed to bring together students and young people across the country and we will continue this protest till we see results,” said AISA State Secretary Sunny Kumar.

Countrywide protests

This week schools and universities in some parts of West Bengal remained closed in solidarity after the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation (AIDSO) called for a strike.

"We press our demand before the government that stringent action should be taken against sexual harassment in the schools," said Nomita Chakraborty, AIDSO secretary in local media.

At Mumbai University, Vice-chancellor Rajan Welukar expressed shock during the university convocation on 30 December attended by the country’s President Pranab Muckerjee.

The incident “benumbed the mind”, Welukar is quoted as saying as he strayed from his prepared speech, and added it had “forced the society to stop and introspect. At some level, value education must be stitched into every curriculum if the country wants to see a reformed society," he said.

By contrast Muckerjee, who was at the convocation, was criticised by students for not referring to the incident at all. The government has come under attack for failing to respond quickly and adequately to concerns.

Since then the Home Ministry has appointed a special task force on women's safety, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, to look into strengthening laws on crimes against women. But many laws already exist and are barely applied.

And Human Resources Minister MM Pallam Raju said on 3 January that the government would take “all measures to ensure” women are safe on campuses of universities and other institutions.

"We want to send a clear signal that there would be zero tolerance as far as instances of indecent behaviour against women are concerned. We will take all measures to make our campuses safe," he told local media at a previously scheduled event at the University of Hyderabad.

Students say that they are not just demanding safe cities but freedom from fear.

“Does the government think that rape and sexual harassment happens only at night? As girls we face harassment everywhere – in public transport, on the roads and what’s worse, inside our academic institutions,” said Chavi Gulal, a graduate of Jamia Milia Islamia (National Islamic University) in New Delhi.

Hope for change

The uprising across the country against all forms of assault on women – at one stage leading to pitched battles between protesters and the police at India Gate in New Delhi – has given hope to many that things might change.

“We have addressed almost 10,000 college students as part of our work. The most difficult thing is to get them to talk openly about sexual harassment,” said Shurbhi Sharma, the young spokesperson of ‘We The People Foundation’ in Mumbai, which was set up after two young men lost their lives trying to protect their female friends from sexual harassment in Mumbai in October 2011.

Sharma insists that while the national outcry has brought young Indians, especially women, to the fore, it is equally important to sustain momentum.

“We tend to forget things easily. We have to continue to protest till we see change. Simultaneously, we need to educate students, especially women, on how to deal with sexual harassment, both psychologically and physically,” she said.

Proactive student community

While much needs to be done to make campuses across India safer for female students, a more proactive student community is willing to tackle the issue head-on. For example, We The People Foundation has launched self-defence training sessions across colleges.

“We keep blaming the government and insist on changing laws. But as women we have to become proactive. Let us take self-defence lessons and take on molesters on the streets,” said Sharma.

Acceptance of the problem and a willingness to address it is also visible among the student community.

“It is true that sexual harassment cases in different forms have been increasing in the campus,” said Shweta Raj, an MA student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and student representative on JNU’s Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment.

“Let us not forget that universities and educational institutions do not stand in isolation. They are part of society and will reflect society’s ills. As a student community we do not wish to hide these incidents. Rather we want to accept them and find solutions,” Raj said.