NEW DELHI — There was no mistaking the whoop of joy that rose outside Saket District Court on Friday, when word got out that four men convicted in last December’s horrific gang rape and murder had been sentenced to death by hanging. People burst into applause. They hugged whoever was beside them. They pumped the air with their fists.
“We are the winners now,” said a woman holding a placard. Sweat had dried into white rivulets on her face, but she had the look of a woman who had, finally, gotten what she wanted. And it was true: A wave of protests after the December rape have set remarkable changes in motion in India, a country where for decades vicious sexual harassment has been dismissed indulgently, called “eve-teasing.”
But some of India’s most ardent women’s rights advocates hung back from Friday’s celebration, skeptical that four hangings would do anything to stem violence against women, a problem whose proportions are gradually coming into focus.
“I think a lot of people were hugging each other because they thought this evil is localized, and it will be wiped out, and that is not the case,” said Karuna Nundy, a litigator who has argued before India’s Supreme Court. “The sad truth is that it is not a deterrent.”
From the moment it broke, the story of the 23-year-old woman dubbed “Nirbhaya,” or “fearless,” awoke real rage in the population.
Hoping for a ride home from a movie theater last December, she and a male companion boarded a private bus, not realizing that the six men aboard had been cruising Delhi in search of a victim. After knocking her friend unconscious, they took her to the back of the bus and raped her, then penetrated her with a metal rod, inflicting grave internal injuries. An hour later, they dumped them out on the road, bleeding and naked. She died two weeks later of her injuries.
Young men and women, mobilized through social media, joined protests that spread across India, demanding tougher laws and more effective policing.
“As a woman, and mother, I understand how protesters feel,” Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful female politician and the president of the governing Congress Party, said at the time. “Today we pledge that the victim will get justice.”
After intensive public discussion of the case, some changes followed with extraordinary speed. Reports of rape have skyrocketed; in the first eight months of this year, Delhi’s police force registered 1,121 cases, more than double the number from the same period in 2011 and the highest number since 2000. The number of reported molestations has increased sixfold in the same period.
The government created a fast-track court for rape cases and introduced new laws, criminalizing acts like voyeurism and stalking and making especially brutal rapes into a capital crime. Scholars have delved into the social changes that may be contributing to the problem, as new arrivals in India’s huge cities find themselves unemployed and hopeless, stuck in “the space below the working class,” as the writer Rajrishi Singhal recently put it in an editorial in The Hindu.
But many were thinking of something more basic — punishing the six men (one, a juvenile, got a three-year sentence in August, and the driver was found dead in his cell in March) who attacked the woman in the bus that December night. It was those people who found their way to Saket courthouse on Friday. Many came like pilgrims, hoping to find closure in a case that had haunted them.
A 62-year-old grandmother, Arun Puri, had scribbled the words “Hang them! Hang them!” on her dupatta, a traditional scarf. Asked whether she felt sorry for the defendants’ parents, she did not flinch. “If these men were my children,” she said, “I would have strangled them to death myself.”
Rosy John, 62, a homemaker watching the furor outside the courtroom, said her only objection to the death sentence was that it was too humane a punishment.
“After death, they will get freedom,” she said. “They should be tortured and given shocks their whole life.”
In fact, it is unlikely the four men will be executed swiftly. The order must be confirmed by India’s High Court, and all four defendants may appeal to the High Court, the Supreme Court and the president for clemency. Some 477 people are on death row, inching through a process that often drags on for five or six years.
Three people have been executed since 2004, and there were no executions for eight years before that.
Sadashiv Gupta, who defended one of the men, a fruit seller named Pawan Gupta, said he had assured his client that the sentence was likely to be commuted to life in prison.
“I told him, ‘You are going to get the death penalty, take it in stride and don’t panic,’” said Gupta, outside the courthouse. “I think he shall not be hanged.”