There is no aspect of this sad, sordid episode that does not grate. Not even what happened after her death. She was gang-raped on a Delhi bus on Dec. 16, and died in Singapore nearly two weeks later. One report speaks of the police “rushing” the family “to get the cremation done before sunrise” and that they “asked the victim’s neighbors to stay away from her house.” Two thousand policemen were in place to add teeth to these requests. By themselves, these might, just might, have been seen as reasonable measures. But in a two-week spell during which nearly every government move has been graceless and ham-handed, this was just more of the same. The prime minister’s reading of a prepared statement on the attack ended with a “Theek hai?” (“That OK?”) to technicians, promptly and widely ridiculed as evidence of his glaring disconnect from popular sentiment. The police apparently saw fit to brutalize people, women included, protesting this ghastly crime—thereby only compounding the impression of their contempt for ordinary citizens. Some higher-up made the decision to fly the young woman to Singapore for treatment, setting off more angry speculation: Are our hospitals not good enough? Was this more political than medical? Should the criminals now be flown to Saudi Arabia for punishment? And the home minister probably took the wooden spoon for his stupid—no other word fits—equation of protesters to Maoists. And now her cremation was handled clumsily? Tell us something new, please.
But if the ham-handedness was bad, the details of what happened to the woman were monstrous. As a reminder of what can happen to women who simply want to go out on the town, they bear repeating in every gruesome detail. She and a male friend caught an evening film at a South Delhi mall. Wanting to head home afterward, they climbed into a bus that stopped for them. According to media reports, six men on the bus, including a minor, began taunting and then assaulting them with an iron rod. They beat the male friend into submission, then took the woman to the back of the bus. There, they beat her. They bit her. They raped her. They shoved the rod into her. They did that last with such venomous force that they pulled out her intestines—one of the men even noticed a “ropelike object” spilling from her body. They carried on this appalling assault for nearly an hour, as the bus reportedly went on a joyride across the city, careening without pause through at least a few police blockades designed to detect and prevent terror. At a highway intersection near the airport, perhaps finally tiring of their blood sport, they reportedly threw the couple—unconscious, stripped of their belongings and clothes—into the freezing Delhi night. That’s where a passerby eventually found them and called the police.
You might think this was an exceptionally revolting incident. One of Malcolm Gladwell’s “outliers,” if you will. Yet if that’s true—and I’m not sure it is—there’s also this simpler truth: for many Indian women, molestation and worse are everyday realities, the stuff of daily news reports. It is no exaggeration to say that. It is no exaggeration to know that blindfolded you could stick a pin in a map of India and likely stumble on a recent report of a rape there. (For example, as I write this my symbolic pin pierced Barmer, Rajasthan, where three men gang-raped a 13-year-old 10 days after the Delhi crime.) Put it all together and the magnitude of this menace is every bit as frightening as what happened on that bus. And this is why the ultimate lesson this episode holds for us Indians is about what makes too many men think they can get away with perpetrating these horrors on women. Beyond anger and grief, this is about our attitudes toward women. About the urgent need to rethink them. Much as recent American massacres are stimulating debates on gun control, this Indian abomination must set off this process of introspection. Or she will have died not just horribly, but entirely in vain.