On the morning of December 29, 2012, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union took out a silent march to pay homage to the 23-year-old Delhi gang rape victim, who had succumbed to her injuries early that morning.
As the march started from the university, the crowd primarily comprised campus students and teachers. By the time they reached Munirka bus stop — from where the girl had boarded the bus with her friend — the number of protesters had tripled, many of whom joined on the way.
A woman in her late twenties, head covered with her saree, burst into tears as protesters asked her to join them. She said she was upset with the death of the girl, and was unable to believe it. She walked a kilometre with the protesters and stood in the crowd till the commemoration meeting ended.
The impromptu mobilisation, largely of the youth, that the Delhi gang rape case galvanised, has intrigued everyone. The youth of the city crowded the Indian seat of power and its symbols for over 12 days, braving cold weather and winds at night.
“This is extraordinary,” says Ayesha Kidwai, professor of JNU’s Centre for Linguistics.
“No one saw it coming. India has a large young population that is much better informed. This young population is seeing that the social reality is very patriarchal.”
“What galvanised everyone around this case is the fact that a young couple took a bus after watching a movie, not too late at night. But more than that, the fact that she fought made her a symbol for everyone,” says Kidwai.
“First she fought the attackers, and then she fought for life. This found resonance among people. She showed that there is life after sexual assault. She told young people that you don’t have to take it.
“Talking specifically about Delhi, this generation has grown talking about sexual harassment. In Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, anti-sexual harassment committees have created a space to discuss and raise voice against such issues.
“In JNU, student fronts have to contest popular elections for this committee. Thus, women have been given more space in universities,” says Kidwai.
Albeena Shakil, coordinator of Justice for Women Now, a front of numerous organisations protesting on the issue, said the initial mobilisation of the youth was the key to why so many young people came out on the streets.
“When JNUSU conducted the first few demonstrations, it set the tone of the movement, whereby it became protests led by young men and women,” says Shakil.
According to her, the current social context fuelled the impromptu protest. Over the last few months, moral policing brigades like the khaps have been building up pressure to take away young women’s freedom.
Statements like “girls should not be allowed to keep mobile phones”, and the “legal age for marriage should be brought down to 16 to avoid rapes”, have angered the young. Thus, anger and frustration have been piling up among the youth, and the case became a trigger to vent that out.
She says this is the most democratic assertion against moral policing that the youth has expressed.
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association, says, “Demographically, Delhi has a huge young population. University students see that they have an insecure life ahead.”
She adds there was a lot of self-organising among students. They would convey each other about protests and the venues.
At the mohalla and institute level, people were also organising themselves. They came after office hours to protest sites too.
The youth feel alienated by the state and sees that they can’t expect freedom unless they come out on the streets now.
Nidhi Misra, a protester who came often to India Gate and Jantar Mantar, says, “There are only a few issues that connect with large masses. This was one such incident. You don’t feel safe, rather realise that you are as unsafe as anyone else.”
“Also, over the years, your state has not done anything to make you feel secure. We do not want to put up with it anymore. We demand change and respect.”
Delhi University law student Ranjan Kishore says he wants his sister and girlfriend to feel safe. “It is stressing to see that they call me up at least four to five times if they are travelling on the road after 11 pm to ensure that I know where they are and can act promptly if something unfortunate happens. Why should we all go through it?”
“The old guard wants to confine women and keep them protected. But young men are saying we are not going to protect women. They should be given as much freedom as we have. This is happening because young men study with young women. They understand their issues and are sensitive to women’s problems. The young generation made this a question of human rights,” says Kidwai.
The debate that emerged through the process did not limit itself to rape, but to a larger understanding of gender issues and the state’s handling of it.
“The scope of the debate broadened from the very first day. It was not just about rape, but marital rape and other forms of sexual harassment. The debate also included questions of freedom and gender question at a larger level. We are talking about denial of basic rights to the young of the country,” says Kidwai.
Shakil adds, “This is the first time in the history of women’s movement in India that men came out in large numbers demanding safety for women. The Mathura rape case and anti-dowry movement in the 1980s saw scores of women coming out on the streets, but never before men came out in such large numbers.”
Kidwai cautions about the demand for death penalty. “The demand to create public spectre of violence is itself
patriarchal in nature. We all are indoctrinated into the patriarchal value of vengeance. It is good that death penalty has not become the clarion call in the movement,” says Kidwai.
Takeaways from the movement
Once the protests are over, everyone is wondering what have been the takeaways.
For Misra, it is about being more alert. “For me the takeaway from the entire issue is that I will not allow myself to be caught off guard,” she says. She will take immediate action; she will always want to be prepared, to call 100 or complain elsewhere.”
The father of a three-year-old girl says he will make her learn karate so that she can walk confidently on the
Shakil says, “The protests exposed that the entire state machinery is completely out of sync with the demands of the young in the country. The movement has put a lot of pressure on them to change. The parameter of debate has been set and the state is supposed to respond accordingly. We have also seen a decisive shift in discourse about women’s rights.”
Krishnan says, “We have to keep talking to young people to keep this going. Even when it’s at lower ebb, how to keep the movement alive is the question. We need to have sexual harassment committees in workplaces.”