Indian protesters pay tribute to gang-rape victim

RAMA LAKSHMI
Last updated 11:40 17/12/2013

A candlelight vigil marks the one-year anniversary of the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old Delhi woman -- police say they've increased outreach, but some still skeptical. Gavino Garay reports.

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ADNAN ABIDI / Reuters
Protesters carry placards as they shout slogans during a protest to mark the first anniversary of the Delhi gang rape on Monday.
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ANINDITO MUKHERJEE / Reuters
Demonstrators shout slogans during a candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary.

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Hundreds of students, activists and other residents in New Delhi retraced the route that a young paramedical student took home from a movie a year ago when she was fatally gang-raped by six men on a moving bus, an incident that fuelled a national outcry against sexual assaults.

The three spots that attracted most protesters Monday (local time) were the cinema hall that the rape victim came out of after watching the movie Life of Pi on the night of December 16, 2012; the stop where she boarded the bus; and finally the highway where she and her male friend were thrown out of the bus by the six rapists and left to die.

"We are here to map her route, we are reclaiming our right to these streets," said Divya Pant, a 21-year-old banking student wearing a red T-shirt that said "Speak Up."

Candle-light vigils, floral tributes, protest songs and cleansing fire rituals were performed in many parts of New Delhi to remember the incident. Marchers held up colorful hand-written placards saying "Silence Hides Violence," "What part of No don't you understand" and "Raise your sons and daughters the same way."

The 23-year-old woman, popularly called the "fearless one" in Hindi here, later died from severe internal injuries in a hospital in Singapore, but many observers say that the debate here about women's safety has shifted irreversibly since then.

'DAY THAT CHANGED INDIA'

On Monday, the front page of Indian Express newspaper carried a headline saying: "In the year since gang rape silence around sexual assault shattered." The news channel NDTV 24x7 ran a program called "The day that changed India."

In the past year, Indians have conducted unprecedented public conversations about rampant rape and sexual harassment of women, something that was previously tolerated silently by many. The national mood forced the government to pass a strict anti-rape law which has helped charge many, including a hugely popular religious guru, a prominent magazine editor and a college administrator for sexual assault in recent months.

"What do we want?" shouted Swara Bhaskar, a young Bollywood actress and one of the protest organisers, outside the movie hall. Men and women around her shouted back in chorus, "Freedom to study, freedom to work, freedom to watch movies, freedom to say no."

As the crowd waved long red, pink and black silken veils as flags, Bhaskar said: "We have used these veils to cover our bodies for years. Today we will turn them into flags."

When the marchers reached the bus stop, many shop owners and onlookers came out to take pictures with their cellphones. Some placed marigold flowers and incense sticks at the bus stop.

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'I HAVE CHANGED'

Protesters said that the past year had been an extraordinary one for women's issues in India.

"I have changed in the last one year - I am here to not just remember her but also tell everybody loudly that I will not forget what happened," said Yugansha Malhotra, 20, an undergraduate studying history at Delhi University. Malhotra said she took part in the massive anti-rape protests in the capital last December. "It was the first time I had taken part in any public protest, it was first time I voiced my anger. Now nobody can tell me to be quiet again."

Malhotra now volunteers with a new online portal called Safe City that was launched soon after the gang-rape protest last year. The site crowd-sources women's responses to map the unsafe sites of the city.

Even though the voices against assault have grown, Indian cities continue to remain unsafe for women, and the number of rapes has not abated.

The protest outside the cinema hall also attacked embedded notions of aggressive masculinity in Indian society.

Singer Sona Mohapatra sang about the "coward's face hiding behind the macho moustache."

Elsewhere in the city, a group screened a documentary film called "Men Against The Tide" featuring men who have fought for women.

'I USED TO BEAT MY WIFE'

One of the men featured in the film, Mahadev Bajabalakar, a pomegranate farmer from western India, was among the marchers.

"I was like any other man, I used to shout at my wife, beat her, take out my frustrations on her," Bajabalakar said. "When I started to change and began speaking about respecting women, villagers mocked me. It wasn't easy. I am here to tell the men that they too can change without embarrassment. They can become real men."

At the protest, volunteers distributed a tiny yellow-and-black booklet to marchers called 'Tips for teenagers and young adults" that appeared to encapsulate the past year's debate about who to blame for sexual assaults.

Quick tips offered to women included say no loudly and firmly, report the incident, don't blame yourself, and "Indian dress is not safer than a western dress."

TIPS FOR MEN

Tips offered to men said "avoid being macho, don't assume that women like being teased, women who dress daringly do not deserve harassment."

Finally, when the marchers reached the spot where the young woman and her friend were dumped on the road, the mood turned sombre and introspective. That night, for nearly half an hour, the woman lay by the road naked and pleading for help as motorists drove past without stopping.

"It was us in those cars that night, the cars that did not stop to help her," Bhaskar said. "We are also involved in this horrible crime. Let us pledge that we will never look away again."

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