NEW DELHI — Outside the Delhi High Court on Friday, there were few clues that a momentous decision was underway in the 2012 gang rape case that shocked the world. Besides a small band of lawyers and journalists, few were present when the court ruled that come Sunday, the youngest of six men who tortured and raped a physiotherapy student on a moving Delhi bus would be a free man.
He had participated in the most heinous of acts but because he was just shy of his 18th birthday on the night of the rape, he served only three years in custody, a sentence that many felt amounted to a severe miscarriage of justice.
And yet, there were not the thousands of protesters who gathered on the streets of the Indian capital after horrific details of the rape came to light. Nor was there the anger expressed outside this very court in September 2013 at the sentencing of the other convicted rapists. On that hot day, Indians had demanded “fansi,” death by hanging.
But in the cool breeze of this December day, the outrage that sprouted from this case seemed a memory. The only expression of disappointment came from the victim’s parents and the lawyers who had fought to defer release.
The victim’s mother, Asha Singh, had promised her daughter she would fight for her but on Friday, she said she had failed.
“Crime has won. We have lost,” Singh said. “Our efforts for three years have failed.”
India’s juvenile justice laws were drafted with the best of intentions and aimed at reform for minors. A minor’s maximum punishment is three years in custody.
But in the aftermath of the gang rape, a bill introduced in parliament sought to amend the law to make exceptions for heinous crimes. But that bill was tabled in the upper house.
The Indian government had asked for continued custody of the minor, who has been held at an institution for juvenile reform. But the high court could not find legal ground on which to issue a stay.
“The court is no doubt concerned by what has happened and the seriousness of the offense, but the court is also helpless because they have to stay within the confines of the act and the rules and the law,” said Anil Soni, a government lawyer.
Three years was a sentence that seemed vastly disproportionate given the heinous nature of the rape. Of the other five rapists, one died in prison and the other four received death sentences.
Their crime was unimaginably brutal. On the night of December 16, 2012, the victim and a male friend boarded a bus to make their way home from a south Delhi movie theater, not far from the high court complex. They were attacked by the six men and left on the side of the road to die.
The woman was found with her intestines pulled out of her body. She was dubbed “Nirbhaya,” one without fear, as she struggled for survival, first in Delhi and then in a hospital in Singapore. She died of her injuries 13 days later.
On Wednesday, people gathered at a third anniversary commemoration in Delhi and listened to Singh name her daughter publicly for the first time — by law, rape victims are not ever named publicly in India.
“Why should I hide her name? Why should I be ashamed of it?” she said. “Those who committed that heinous crime on her should feel ashamed. The makers of this administrative system should feel ashamed.”
‘Public memory is fickle’
The law states that Jyoti Singh’s under-18 rapist also cannot be named. He came to be known in the Indian media as “the juvenile.”
The crime galvanized Indians to take to the streets. They demanded an end to violence against women and as well as legal and societal changes. And though the Nirbhaya case is still widely discussed, the fervor has calmed and few changes have materialized.
“Public memory is fickle,” said Meenakshi Bhanja, 35, a Delhi-based journalist who was outside the Delhi court Friday.
“Has anything changed in India? I am sorry to say, ‘no,'” she said. “Outrage over an incident doesn’t change the DNA of the society.
That was also the sentiment of three law students who are interning at the high court.
“Our legal system should be strong enough to make us all feel safe,” said Dolly Kaushik, 22. “Nothing has changed in India.”
Her friend Krithika Dua, 22, said India has the laws in the books, but she blamed the police and the judiciary for failing to implement them. Kaushik blamed all of Indian society.
“Even we are at fault,” she said. “The mindset has to change. How can anyone say that the answer to the problem is that girls should not go out.”
She was referring to Indian politicians who, in the aftermath of Jyoti Singh’s rape, suggested that she had perhaps asked for it by going out at night.
“In our country, fathers rape their daughters,” Kaushik said. “Most rape cases happen in the house.”
Monika Khatri, another 22-year-old law student who wants to become a judge, said a young man who rapes a woman so violently that she dies from her injuries should serve many years behind bars, no matter his age. Justice, she said, had eluded Nirbhaya.