It was a vile and savage crime that even shook the citizens of Hell, burned a groove in everyone’s mind and set passions flaring across the nation. People came out in thousands, clamoring for the head of the loathsome juvenile responsible for leading the vicious assault, torture, rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in a moving bus in Delhi. Yet the benign judges of India thought otherwise. The ferocious carnivore who ripped off the intestines of the victim with his bare hands was finally sentenced. Instead of being put to death, he was given the slap-in-the-wrist punishment of three years in a reform home for juveniles. Instead of the death penalty, the criminal was treated with velvet gloves. A tornado of rage, disappointment and disillusionment greeted the much awaited verdict once again reinforcing the obvious fact. As far as women are concerned, the system is broken and nobody will fix it, not the police, not the courts, not the lawyers, and not even society which chooses not only to be blind but also ostracizes the victim.
It makes no sense. Three years in a juvenile reform home for an adult crime that shook the nation and the world. Three years for taking the lead in a gang-rape, inserting an iron rod in the girl’s vagina and throwing her off the street, torn, bleeding and lying in a pool of blood. Three years for a murder so foul that even the Devil took notice and went to salute his master. More than anything else, the verdict from the “respectable” judges sends a chilling, unambiguous message - women you are on your own.
It’s an edgy topic. Justice from a man’s world is not a given especially in India where rape is pervasive and is now a national problem. Statistics paint a morbid picture - 24, 206 reported rape cases registered in 2011, the unreported number being much higher, a rape occurs every 20 minutes, the number of rape cases has doubled between 1990 and 2008 and so on. And there is more, much more. On the same day that the juvenile was sentenced, four men including 2 policemen were arrested for gang- raping a 26-year old woman in India on the outskirts of Delhi. Just last month in August 2013, a 23-year old photo journalist was gang-raped by five men in the suburbs of Mumbai. In Jind, Haryana, a 20-year old dalit girl was raped, murdered and her body dumped in a river. Even foreign women are not spared. An American woman was raped in June after visiting a Hindu temple in Northern India. A Swiss woman and her husband on a cycling tour in India were attacked by a group of men in March. Children too are victims. A four year old girl died after being assaulted by a 35-year old man in Ghansaur in April and a five year old was raped two weeks earlier in New Delhi. And so the list goes on and rape continues as there are no consequences terrible enough to deter it. Old attitudes persist, authorities are reluctant to register rape cases, or vehemently deny there was any rape, rape cases are consigned to oblivion and rapists are given a free pass. It has happened again and again and the laws do not protect women. So when the law cannot protect you, can you not have the freedom to protect yourself? What are the choices that rape victims have? Should they take up arms and get wild justice or do they get buried under the laws of society by their silence? Do they avenge their wrongs or just let abuse take its toll on society?
A group of crusading women from the hardscrabble, rural hinterlands led by a spunky and bright woman, Sampat Pal Devi, shines a light on the uncharted territory of retribution. Sampat Pal’s life went through the usual gauntlet of cruelty of rural India. Married at 12, she was bullied by her in-laws. She rebelled. She was illiterate, poor and from a low-caste. All the odds were stacked against her but yet she rebelled against the archaic tradition and stifling customs and was thrown out into the streets with her 5 children. She was not alone. She saw her own story replicated among many women who were poor and without privilege. Domestic abuse and violence against women was pervasive and accepted without a demur. Sampat Pal, however, refused to be cowed down. Disgusted with the social injustice and abuse, she organized a group of women using the psychological tool of “we’re in this together” solidarity and launched the “Gulabi Gang” in 2006. A bold, grassroots organization the pink sari wearing Gulabi Gang, fought the toxic stew of gender discrimination, lawlessness and political and social corruption. Armed with lathis, they take on abusive men, police officers, and even corrupt politicians. Today the organization has thousands of members and is the largest female vigilante group in the world and even has an overseas office in France. The Gulabi Gang rejoices in bringing justice but uses violence only when necessary. There are many prominent citizens and arm-chair critics safely perched on the mountain of privilege who decry the violence. But Sampat Pal has a simple answer, “This country is ruled by men. No use asking them for help. We women must fight our own battles ourselves.”
Another group of women rising up to seek justice is the “Red Brigade” which was formed in 2011. Though smaller than the Gulabi Gang, it is just as effective. It focuses on self-defense techniques and classes, has over 100 members ranging from 11 to 25 and battles inequality and injustice. Jyoti Singh, a two year member of the Red Brigade summarized the modus operandi of the vigilante group. “First, we warn the man to desist from harassing women. If he doesn’t stop, we pay a visit to the man. If he still persists, we then publicly humiliate him.” The reasoning is simple; law enforcement support to crimes against women is non-existent. Usha Vishvakarma, another woman of the Red Brigade explained, “three years ago, one of my colleagues tried to rape me. When I went to the police to file a complaint, I was told not to over react and to keep quiet about it.”
When Society looks the other way and condones violence against women in the name of tradition, Indian women have little choice but to become a lethal force, a deterrent with a “don’t mess with me ferocity”. As world events and History has demonstrated there is little doubt that when women get on the payback path of retribution, she can be as barbaric as men. Euripedes’ Medea, the Trung sisters and Boudiccia of the ancient world, Cardinal Richlieu’s deadly assassin Milady, Laurena Bobbitt and Phoolan Devi, all attest to the saying, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Hollywood contributes its share of wisdom on avenging women, some of them based on true events. Literature also has the unique Madame Defarge, whose craving for revenge was more deadly than the male.
Gulabi Gang and the Red Brigade may be small groups. But they carry the potent seeds of a galvanizing rationale, “women of India, let’s unite and fight.” They may have a long way to go before achieving what Helen Reddy sang, “I am woman, hear me roar.” But they have climbed the steep walls of isolation and broken the barriers of a compulsive silence. And it is only a matter of time before the spark of justice spreads to women all over the country. After all, they have nothing to lose but their chains.