India on trial as gang rape verdict is due

Youngest of five alleged attackers to learn his fate on Monday

It was a family tradition. Every year, like millions of people across India, they would gather with friends and relatives in their cramped home, turn on the television to watch the Prime Minister address the nation and then escape upstairs to fly paper kites from the roof.

This year, of course, it was different. This Independence Day the family of the 23-year-old Delhi student whose gang-rape and murder reverberated around the world, quietly mourned her loss, remembering how 12 months ago she had travelled from medical college to be with them. This year there was no cooking, let alone of special food. No flying of kites.

In the latest step in their struggle to achieve what they believe will be justice, the family will tomorrow return to court, where a verdict on one of six males accused of raping and killing the young woman is scheduled to be announced. The family believe a decision regarding the 18-year-old – the youngest of her alleged attackers – could be delayed again while a higher court decides whether the teenager should be tried as a juvenile or an adult.

But for the family, the matter is quite simple: if he is found guilty, he should be hanged. "He was just five months younger than 18 at the time of the crime," said the young woman's mother, perched on a stool, and wearing a pink sari. "He committed the same crime as the others. That is why it does not make sense that he shouldn't receive the same punishment."

It is nine months since her daughter and a male friend, Awindra Pandey, were making their way home from a cinema in the south of Delhi where they had watched Life of Pi, and boarded a bus they believed would take them in the direction they were heading.

As it was, soon after getting on, the two were pestered and then attacked by the driver and his five friends. Mr Pandey tried to protect his companion and was beaten with iron bars. She was repeatedly raped. Eventually, the pair were stripped naked and thrown from the moving bus. The young woman died two weeks later in hospital.

The attack on the student exposed many dark faultlines within Indian society – the vulnerability of women, the enduring evil of caste, an apparently widening economic disparity. It highlighted how far India still has to travel before the dream of its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, outlined 66 years ago in those very first hours of the country's independence – "to bring freedom and opportunity to the common man" – is realised.

In their house on the south-western fringes of Delhi, set amid mud-filled alleyways where dark puddles are alive with mosquitoes, the family of the young woman recalled the many occasions they had celebrated together on 15 August. They remembered playing and laughing and eating.

The elder of her two brothers, a 20-year-old student, said he would typically spend the day flying a kite, competing with his neighbours to cut their rivals' string. "She would come upstairs and see what was happening," he said of his sister. "She would try it out."

The mother said she would always cook the family's favourite food – the fried, fluffy bread known as puri, and curried vegetables. Her daughter, who as a baby had been nicknamed Shilini, was fond of desserts and traditional Indian sweets.

Four year ago, she announced to her mother and father that she wanted to attend college in the city of Dehradun and train to be a physiotherapist. Her parents were initially concerned, anxious about both the cost and the fact that she would be going so far away. Their own upbringing, in a rural part of the state of Uttar Pradesh, had been very different.

"We were a little scared at first. We were worried about where the money would come from," said her mother. But the young woman persisted. Her daughter was adamant. "She was very resolute. She said, 'I'm going to study at medical college or not at all.'"

Her father found extra shifts at his job as a load manager at Delhi airport. Sometimes he worked 16 hours a day. "I was very bent on getting her educated," said the man, who 20 years earlier had sold a tiny plot of land in order to make the switch to a life in the city. "Whatever it takes."

And when she went away to college, the young student came home to be with her family and celebrate the special holidays – the festivals of Holi and Diwali, and Rakhi – a time when brothers and sisters typically tie bracelets around one another's wrists – and Independence Day.

"She would come on the bus to the interstate terminal," said her youngest brother, who is hoping to go to college to study engineering. "It's an eight-hour journey."

In the aftermath of the attack on the young woman, Manmohan Singh's government rushed through legislation that increased the punishments for rapists and established a panel that made a series of proposals for reform.

It also set up a series of fast-track courts for rape cases, one of which is dealing with the four adults - Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Akshay Thakur – charged in the case. All have pleaded not guilty. A fifth accused, Ram Singh, the man said by police to have been the ringleader, was found hanged in his jail cell earlier this year.

Yet few believe anything substantial has changed. Every day, the newspapers are filled with details of assaults and rapes, women feel no safer, and after a couple of weeks during which they set up check-points, the Delhi police have been no more visible then before. The debate about the position of women within Indian society, a discussion that so gripped the media for a handful of frenetic weeks, has gone, replaced by something else.

"It's only on paper that these changes have taken place," said the young woman's father. "Nothing is going to happen."

Under Indian law, victims of rape cannot be identified, even if they are dead, without the written permission of the next of kin.

The family of the young woman, whose death sparked candlelit vigils from Islamabad to Chicago, say they are happy for her to be named. But they said they had been advised by a lawyer that the two trials could be delayed or disrupted if her name or image is released before they are concluded.

Eventually, the family hopes the young woman will be remembered by having a "women's security" day named after her. They say perhaps it could fall on her birthday, 10 May.

In one of the family home's small, dimly-lit rooms, the two brothers took out a framed photograph of their sister. It had been taken a couple of weeks before the attack and she wanted it in order to apply for an internship with a hospital in Delhi.

The photograph showed a smart young woman with long, dark hair, pushed back a little on one side. It was someone on the edge of full adulthood, at the start of her own career, on the cusp of her own independence.

The young woman's mother and father placed the photograph on a shelf and lit a candle. They pushed together their palms and bowed their heads.

Comments