The brutal gang-rape on a bus highlighted the routine abuse of Indian women – and how the nation’s surge to superpower status has left millions behind struggling on the margins… These were not serial sex criminals, psychopaths or brutalised men from the margins of society. Their backgrounds were, perhaps more worryingly, like those of tens of millions of Indian men…
It was a Sunday evening routine: heavy drinking, some rough, rustic food, and then out in the bus, cruising Delhi’s streets looking for “fun”. This particularSunday, 16 December last year, was like many others for Ram and Mukesh Singh, two brothers living in a slum known as Ravi Das Colony. The “fun”, on previous occasions, had meant a little robbery to earn money for a few bottles of cheap whisky and for the roadside prostitutes who work the badly lit roads of the ragged semi-urban, semi-rural zones around the edges of the sprawling Indian capital. However, this Sunday evening was to end not with a “party”, as one of the men later called their habitual outings, but with the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman. The incident was to prompt a global outcry and weeks of protests in India, and to reveal problems often ignored by those overseas who are perhaps too eager to embrace a heartwarming but simplistic narrative of growing prosperity in the world’s biggest democracy.
If sympathy lay, naturally, with the 23-year-old physiotherapist who was the victim of the attack, fascination focused on her assailants. These were not serial sex criminals, psychopaths or brutalised men from the margins of society. Their backgrounds were, perhaps more worryingly, like those of tens of millions of Indian men. Nor was Ravi Das Colony “the underbelly” of the Indian capital, as one local newspaper described it. A few hundred homes crammed on to a patch of land flanked by a road, a temple and a recently restored medieval tomb, it lies like an outpost of another, poorer India amid the relatively well-off suburbs to the south of the city.
Like hundreds of other settlements across the metropolis, all founded by squatting migrants, who have been drawn to Delhi for decades, its single-room homes are overcrowded and noisy, but its doorsteps are swept clean each night and, though police venture rarely into its narrow lanes, order is maintained by the knowledge that almost every act, even the most intimate, will be instantly known to the entire community.
For Ram and Mukesh Singh, 34 and 26 years old, Ravi Das Colony had been home for most of their lives. Ram earned a living as the driver of a bus that, albeit without the necessary permits, carried school children. Ram’s brother, fired from a dozen jobs, intermittently drove a taxi. The two had grown up on a small homestead in Karauli, a remote eastern part of the State of Rajasthan, five hours by train from the capital. They attended a local school with few facilities and an often absent teacher, playing in the fields and dried riverbeds. They came to Delhi in 1997. India was then beginning to boom after the reforms of the early 1990s injected a new capitalist energy into the sclerotic, quasi-socialist-quasi-feudal economy, and their landless labourer parents decided to try their luck in the capital.
But if life in the city was better than the brutal poverty of the village, the improvement was only marginal. After a decade, their father and mother returned to Karauli and the brothers stayed on in a one-room brick home, brutally hot in the heat of the summer, freezing in winter. Ram, a slim, dark, small man, married a woman with three children by another man. She died of cancer shortly afterwards without bearing him a child of his own. After her death, he started drinking heavily and fighting. When he drove his bus into a lorry, he damaged an arm permanently. (Ram later appeared on one of India’s hugely popular reality shows, angrily accusing his former employer of refusing him compensation for his injury. The bus owner accused him of being negligent and rash.)
Though they left local girls alone, the Singh brothers were known among their neighbours for drunkenness, petty crime and occasional, unpredictable violence. The younger brother, Mukesh, was personable, if impressionable, according to teenagers in the neighbourhood. “He was fine on his own but different when he was with his brother,” one said, speaking a few days after the incident that would make the pair, if only for a short time, globally infamous.
Ram Singh spent the afternoon of 16 December visiting relatives elsewhere in the city, returning home at about 5pm. The day before, a 17-year-old drifter who had worked with him a year previously as an assistant on his bus had come to collect a debt of 6,000 rupees (£70). The money was not ready and, with little else to do, the teenager had stayed on, sleeping on the bare floor of the small house. Also staying was another young man, 28-year-old Akshay Thakur, who eked out a living helping Ram Singh on his bus, and had no home of his own. Both the 17-year-old, known as Raju, and Thakur had their own troubled histories. Their paths had taken them through a side of India that has less to do with the emerging economic powerhouse of international repute and more to do with a tenacious, older Indiariven by conflict, poverty, chaos and random violence.
The eldest of five children, Raju was born to a destitute day labourer with mental health issues and his wife in a village 150 miles east of Delhi, in the vast northern State of Uttar Pradesh which has 180 million inhabitants and socio-economic indicators often worse than those in sub-Saharan Africa. As in rural Rajasthan, where the Singh brothers came from, women in the countryside of Uttar Pradesh suffer systematic sexual harassment and often violence. Rape is common and gang rape frequent. Victims are habitually blamed for supposedly enticing their attackers. Many are forced to marry their assailants; others kill themselves rather than live with the social stigma of being “dishonoured”. Police rarely register a complaint, let alone investigate.
When only 10 or 11 years old, Raju was sent from his village home for Delhi. Though for some time he intermittently sent his parents money, they had no idea where he was. According to Raju’s statement to police, the country boy had found food, shelter and a meagre wage as a dishwasher and server in a cheap dhaba, or roadside foodstall, in a rough neighbourhood called Trilokpuri, on the margins of the city’s sprawl across the northern bank of the stinking, if still holy, river Yamuna. Created as a new home for slum dwellers cleared from Delhi’s old city in the 1970s, Trilokpuri is another zone of transition, still halfway between the urban and the rural, where buffalo graze amid plastic bags and rubbish in the wastelands that separate new, poorly built cement blocks of flats.
After six months at a stall, sleeping below the tables and eating leftovers, Raju found work as a milkman’s assistant before returning to washing dishes, this time at a dhaba serving Delhi’s favourite street food of chole bhatura, spiced chickpeas. Finally he pitched up at a third establishment where the owner remembers a hardworking, slight and personable young man liked by the hundreds of customers, mainly rickshaw drivers, who each day paid 20 or 30 rupees for a bowl of beef curry with thick, rustic bread.
Raju earned 3,000 rupees a month but left in the summer of 2011 after Ram Singh, who was a regular at the dhaba, asked him to work as an assistant on his bus. After a few months he moved on again, taking a job as a cleaner at a bus station in the south of Delhi where he slept in empty vehicles but remained friends with the man from Ravi Das Colony. He had stopped sending money home and his parents, back in his remote native village, believed he was dead.
The fourth man sharing the food and cheap whisky in the Singh brothers’ home in Ravi Das Colony that Sunday evening was Akshay Thakur, who also came from a distant village deep in a desperately poor and conservative part of India. He, too, had left his home, 80 miles from Patna, the State capital of Bihar, for Delhi, though his journey was less direct, taking him five years and a variety of poorly paid, often physically arduous jobs such as working in brick kilns and selling illegal home-brewed “country liquor” before he ended up replacing Raju, working on Ram Singh’s bus.
The four men were thus all representative of a substantial element of contemporary Indian society. (The median age in India is 25, with two-thirds of the 1.2 billion population under 35.) They were semi-skilled and poorly educated, like so many other products of the country’s failing education systems. They were migrants from the country to the town – four of the millions of individuals who over recent decades have converted an almost entirely rural country into an increasingly urbanised one. They were unmarried in a part of India where men outnumber women and gender imbalances are worsening. They were drinking in a city known for high levels of alcohol abuse. There was nothing very extraordinary about them. Yet within hours they would commit acts that would prompt outrage across the planet.
– The Guardian. (To be continued)