The family of “J” – it is illegal under Indian law to name a rape victim – were, like those of her assailants, from close to the bottom of India’s still tenacious caste hierarchy. She had wanted to be a doctor, ideally a neurosurgeon, but opted instead for the more modest, and more affordable, ambition of physiotherapist and found a college in the northern city of Dehradun where she could qualify after a four-year course. To raise the 40,000-rupee annual fee, her father sold part of his land in his village and mortgaged the rest. To cover living expenses – a similar sum – J found a job in a call centre in the city…
A recap : 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…
At about 8 pm, after the “party” had been going for nearly three hours, Ram Singh was called by the owner of the bus he drove for a living, and asked to buy a cylinder of cooking gas. He turned to his friends and, according to Raju’s statement to the police, said: “Let’s go out and have some fun.” The men headed for the bus, which was parked 100 metres or so away on a side road, the statement says. On the way, they called on friends in the slum to join them. Two did: Pawan Gupta, a 19-year-old fruit seller and student, and Vinay Sharma, 20, who worked part-time in an expensive gym as a cleaner-cum-instructor. Both lived with their parents and had marginally more stable backgrounds than the others but were still far from exceptional in any obvious way.
Gupta, a relative said, had grown up in a temple in the remote rural town of Basti in north-eastern Uttar Pradesh, another desperately poor part of India. He had given up further education to come to Delhi to help his parents run their fruit stall. Still only 20, he was hoping to go to college. He had “fallen in with the wrong sort”, a relative said.
Sharma, the son of an airport cleaner, was doing a distance-learning college course in communications and gave his parents the rest of the 5,000 rupees he earned each month at the gym catering to Delhi’s elite a few miles away. Such a stark proximity between the very wealthy and the less well-off, between the aspirant and the arrived, is also typical of the new India.
Driven by Mukesh Singh, the bus first headed north-east, along Delhi’s choked, congested inner ring road. The city has two such routes, both haphazardly planned and often gridlocked. The men pulled up at designated bus stops, where one of them – Raju, according to police – called out for anyone wanting a ride to Nehru Place, a shopping centre and office complex a few miles away. It was already dark and cold.
After about 10 minutes and several attempts to attract custom at different bus stops, a carpenter on his way home from work got on. Ram Singh shut the doors immediately behind him, and his brother accelerated away. Within minutes, the man had been beaten and robbed of his phone and 1,400 rupees, then dumped from the moving vehicle. He did not bother reporting the crime.
By 8.30 pm, after another few abortive attempts to lure passengers aboard, the bus pulled up at a stop in a suburb called Munirka. To make the trap more effective, Sharma, Gupta and Thakur sat on different seats at the front of the vehicle, posing as passengers, and visible from outside through the open doors. Raju stood on the step of the bus. “For Palam crossing and Dwarka sector one,” he shouted.
Work like a horse, live like a saint
Drive into Dwarka and the ragged reality of India’s journey to prosperity is very obvious. A narrow flyover takes a stream of vehicles over a railway where packed trains pass slowly between strips of wasteland strewn with rubbish, faeces, and thin-ribbed cows. Everywhere there are people: labourers streaming from their makeshift huts to work on a series of unfinished, skeletal luxury flats that will be sold to the newly wealthy; women buying or carrying baskets of vegetables; schoolchildren in neat uniforms; young men doing little except play with their mobile phones; some beggars. Above soar billboards, advertising a conference with a “real estate guru”, a “women’s day” at a local gym where “cut-price classes” will “make him love your curves”, and one poster composed of vast portraits of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and the former president APJ Abdul Kalam, the “father” of India’s nuclear programme.
One of the most striking elements of the Delhi gang-rape case is the similarity in the backgrounds of the victim and of her killers. The family of “J” – it is illegal under Indian law to name a rape victim were, like those of her assailants, from close to the bottom of India’s still tenacious caste hierarchy. Her father, Badri Nath, like the Singh brothers’ father, had left his remote ancestral village for the capital in search of a better life. In 1982, a bus took him from his village on the banks of the Ganges in the middle of India’s northern plains to a station where he bought a ticket for an overnight train to a city he had never seen. “I didn’t want to leave,” he said simply.
But he had little choice. Badri Nath was one of four brothers. The two eldest had been educated but funds were short and insufficient for Badri Nath to finish his schooling. His father was the only son of a man who himself was one of four sons. The family land, once enough to support a number of families, had thus been divided so many times that it was insufficient to provide a living even for one. Three years after he left the fields behind, his wife, who married when she was only 15, came to join him in Delhi.
In the city, Badri Nath managed to keep food on the table and a roof over the head of his young family. This was no mean achievement. In the mid-1980s, the Indian economy was still weak. The country was apparently locked into the “Hindu growth rate”. Communal violence was rife, opportunities few. He started polishing pressure cookers, then worked in a washing machine factory. A sympathetic boss gave him money for a small plot of land in what was then the semi-rural suburb of Dwarka and he built a very modest, cramped two-room home there. He took on a second job as a night watchman in a hospital.
Slowly, over the years, the district developed. Electricity was connected, though problems with water supply never seemed to be resolved. More and more people flowed in from the rural areas. A decade passed, then another. Dwarka turned into a small town, then a small city, one of the many that fuse with the metropolis ofDelhi itself. Economic development, accelerating steadily as the years passed, meant a newly monied middle class, and new airlines to take them to business meetings and beaches.
Delhi’s airport expanded. New workers were needed, and Badri Nath, through a friend, found work as a loader, emptying planes he would never fly in of baggage as they came in from Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Kolkata or elsewhere. He signed up for two eight-hour shifts, each one earning 100 rupees. He left home at 1 pmand got home at 6 am. The journey to work took 15 minutes in an unlicensed taxi, often vehicles driven by chauffeurs making some money on the side after dropping their employers off at the airport. Getting home took half an hour in an overcrowded bus.
“I heard once that to escape poverty you need to work like a horse and live like a saint,” Badri Nath said later. “That is what I have tried to do all my life.”
His first child was a boy who died after three days. In India, sons are prized to the point where they receive not only scarce financial resources for their education but also better food. Female foetuses are selectively aborted so frequently that Delhi and the states around it suffer a massive demographic imbalance between men and women. Badri Nath thought differently, however. “My wife was so sad when we had another child, we did not care if it was a boy or a girl. We just wanted it to survive,” he said. The child was J, and she was followed over eight years by two boys.
All three children went to the local Government school, but it was J who stood out. “She just needed to look at something once and she remembered it,” said Badri Nath. Her textbooks lined a wall in the small home. To give her space to study and sleep, the rest of the family ate and slept in the second bedroom, covering a bed with a plastic sheet to convert it into a dining table.
“The only thing that interested her was studies,” her father remembered. She covered the wall of her room not with Bollywood posters or pages from magazines but diagrams laboriously copied from her textbooks. Her handwriting and written English were soon the best in the family – her parents still conversed in the Bhojpuri language of their part of Uttar Pradesh – and it was J who filled in all the myriad administrative documents that blight every Indian’s dealings with Government. If there was any time left after studying, she helped neighbour’s children in exchange for a few rupees or watched television on the family’s cable connection.
She had wanted to be a doctor, ideally a neurosurgeon, but opted instead for the more modest, and more affordable, ambition of physiotherapist and found a college in the northern city of Dehradun where she could qualify after a four-year course. To raise the 40,000-rupee annual fee, her father sold part of his land in his village and mortgaged the rest. To cover living expenses – a similar sum – J found a job in a call centre in the city.
It was through a mutual friend at the call centre that she met Awindra Pandey, the 28-year-old information technology specialist who was with her on the night of the attack. The two were “just friends”, J’s father said, though he often spoke to the young man on the telephone and liked him. There was no question of the pair marrying as they came from different sides of what, in India, remains an unbridgeable gulf.
Pandey’s family were from the upper castes and his father was a wealthy lawyer. He had a good salaried job – only a quarter of working Indians are employed in the formal sector – as an IT specialist. But if there would never have been a match, there could at least be companionship. The couple had been seeing each other for over a year and had even been on a trip to the hills together. They had not seen each other for more than month however before the attack. It was J, back inDelhi to look for an internship as a physiotherapist, who called her friend to suggest a trip to the cinema. Pandey picked her up from home and they travelled to Saket Mall, an upmarket shopping centre in the south of Delhi, where they watched Life of Pi at a multiplex, leaving at about 8.30 pm. They walked out past the western-branded clothes shops and supermarkets, the new coffee bars, the car rank where drivers pull up in imported 4x4s, which they then load with shopping as their employer settles on the back seats, past the uniformed security guards, into the darkness of the evening, and started looking for transport home. This was a different India from that which J’s father had known.
Delhi’s public transport is grossly inadequate at the best of times. If the reforms of the 1990s unleashed the power of the private sector, for good or ill, they did little to bolster the public sector. Since, public services and institutions, under increasing pressure, have not just failed to keep pace but have often in effect collapsed. So even a new and expanding metro in Delhi has barely made a difference in the seething city. As ever in India, where the State fails, jugaad (“frugal innovation”) takes over. Unlicensed buses are broadly tolerated, or at least allowed to run, after paying a small bribe to avoid a fine.
On this Sunday night there were no official Delhi Metropolitan Corporation buses to take J and Pandey back to Dwarka. No auto-rickshaw wanted such a distant fare either. The couple convinced one driver to take them two miles from the mall to another bus stop, at Munirka, where they hoped to find more options to get back to Dwarka so Pandey could see J safely home.
According to Pandey’s statement to police, the couple had been waiting only a few minutes when the bus driven by Mukesh Singh pulled up with the juvenile leaning from the open door calling out its destination. “Where are you going, didi?” he asked the woman, using the colloquial Hindi for elder sister, police statements say.
The couple got in and sat down, falling for the ruse that the men posing as passengers had prepared. “How long will it take?” Pandey asked. “Not too long,” replied Ram Singh. His brother, Mukesh, was still at the wheel. One of the other men, still playing his role, asked the same question. “Let’s get going,” Ram Singh said as his assistant Thakur took 20 rupees as a fare from the couple. The bus moved off.
– The Guardian.
(To be continued)