The six suspected rapists certainly inhabited this “inbetween” world. All grew up in poor, socially conservative rural communities in some of the most backward, violent parts of the country and frequently returned to their villages.
Ram Singh, the 35-year-old bus driver who is alleged to be the ringleader, and his younger brother Mukesh, came from Karauli in Rajasthan. The district may be only a few hours drive from the Taj Mahal, but honor killings, banditry and violence between castes, the tenacious millennia-old social hierarchy, are endemic there. Another of the suspects came from southern Bihar, as poor and lawless as anywhere in India. A fourth was from Basti, a small town near the border with Nepal, a bad place in a state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), that has socio-economic indicators worse than many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Bihar and UP, along with the more prosperous Haryana and Punjab, are states in which the killing of female fetuses and girls is common practice.
However, all were living in Delhi, in an unregistered semi-legal squatters’ “colony” or “camp” in the south of the city that itself is a halfway house between village and urban life. In Ravi Dass colony, named after a 15th century saint, children return from classes in fashion design or medicine at local colleges to mothers cooking on open wood-fired clay stoves. It too is a zone of transition, barely policed, where, as they would do in a village, neighbors enforce order and the authorities are rarely seen.
“We are good people,” one inhabitant said last week. There was little “eve-teasing” — as sexual harassment is often euphemistically called in India — because fathers would unite to ensure anyone troubling their daughters stopped. However, beyond the colony, there were no such constraints. Out on the streets of Delhi, there were no neighbors, no angry fathers a few meters away, and, as with most Indian cities, only rare, inefficient and often corrupt police.
The victim too lived on the fringes of Delhi: in Dwarka, a sprawl of apartments and construction sites developed in phases since the mid-1960s to the southwest of the city. It too is a place of constant change as it expands into the semi-rural hinterland. Her father, from a small provincial town, had got a job as a loader at Delhi airport. His daughter’s recent qualification as a physiotherapist meant her family was thus well on the way to fulfilling its aspirations of respectability, relative economic comfort and broader opportunity for the next generation. On the evening of the assault, she and her friend were returning from a movie theater in Saket, one of two multiplexes at a well-known and extremely popular modern shopping mall. The moment they climbed into the unlicensed private bus driven by their attackers the good and the bad elements of India’s ongoing transformation collided.
In India last week the protests were beginning to die away and the media coverage was diminishing. The charge sheet against the accused — 1,000 pages long — was entered formally in court on Thursday. Police have said they will seek a death sentence. Some legislation will be passed. There will be fast-track courts set up, harsher penalties for rape introduced and a few other measures. The issue will not be forgotten, but the rapes that currently appear on the front of local newspapers will slide inexorably toward less prominent pages.