"Gang rape in South Delhi" – this was the SMS that flashed on my phone on 17 December 2012, exactly a decade ago. At the time, I couldn't have guessed the impact this case would have on our laws, our society, and me, personally.
I was a crime reporter with a national daily in the capital back then, and I knew what the keyword, 'South Delhi', meant. I had to relay information to my editor, and for that, I had to urgently find out more details of the crime – the where, what, when, and why. So, I called the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) South, Chhaya Sharma.
The call went unanswered. Within minutes, however, more details trickled in – a 23-year-old paramedic student, a moving bus, Vasant Kunj, Life of Pi, 9 pm. It was chilling. How could this happen to a woman who was my age, in a part of the city we all considered safer than the rest of the areas, after watching a movie I would have watched too?
There was hardly any social media to track news back then. Unlike now, no videos and photos of the spot were uploaded within minutes on Twitter; there was no hashtag outrage. There was also no rush to file a story online.
Once the basic details were in place, I rushed to the spot – Vasant Kunj. Plenty of other reporters from Hindi and English newspapers and news channels had also made it to the spot where the 23-year-old woman and her male friend were thrown out of the moving bus after she was raped a night ago.
It was a cold and dark December evening. No one at the spot was talking to media personnel. In the meantime, my colleague, who was a health reporter at the time, was trying for updates on the woman's condition from the hospital.
As the evening progressed, we found out that the injuries were unimaginable. It was like a vicious attack by a wild animal. It was horrifying, heartbreaking, and infuriating. Back in the office, as I began filing the story, tears rolled down my eyes. It could have been any of us.
This was just the beginning of a very long story – of a woman brutalised, an apathetic system, a society up in arms (albeit briefly), and victim shaming. This was the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case.
A decade later, little has changed. As I watched the Shraddha Walkar murder case unfold on news in the last month, the same sentence came to my mind – a woman brutalised, an apathetic system, a society up in arms (albeit briefly), and victim shaming.
When the System Faced Flak
On 18 December 2012 – two days after the incident – crime reporters from across newspapers and channels reached the concerned police station because the accused had been caught. There was a lot of pressure on the Delhi Police to arrest the men who had raped and assaulted the 23-year-old paramedic student.
The media was in a frenzy. Reporters were enraged by the monstrosity of the crime. "Kaise jaanwar hai yeh log jinhone aisa haal kiya?" said a reporter. I had been a crime reporter for a little over two years. Those who had been filing crime stories for over a decade were also shocked by the details of this case.
Even the public was baying for the blood of the accused. At the police station, apart from reporters, a group of enraged citizens had gathered. The bus in which she was gang raped two nights ago had reached the police station. Such was people's rage that they pelted stones at the bus. I still have a vivid memory of the bus on the main road with broken glass, and people shouting "Maaro saalo ko."
The same day, there was a press conference on the case by the then-Commissioner of Delhi Police (CP). My editor, meanwhile, had asked me to get clarity on the route that the bus had taken. So, I sat with then-CP who drew a map of the 3-km radius the bus had covered, on an A4 size sheet.
Back then, there was no stalling of information by the police. We depended on our sources, of course, but the senior police officers shared inputs regularly. This was being done to ensure that no false information was circulated.
Politically too, the case had become a huge deal. The government had to control the protests that would have erupted. There was a massive backlash from society. Details emerged, which claimed that on the night of the incident, there were major lapses by the police. As the white-line charter bus took two rounds across Vasant Kunj, no traffic police personnel posted in the area stopped to ask why the curtains were drawn.
Even the CCTV footage of the bus being driven around in the area was of poor quality.
The system was facing a lot of flak and the media was in no mood to spare it. Story after story across news channels and papers focused on the lapses of the police – the delay in the arrival of the PCR van, the callousness of the traffic personnel on duty, and the many dark spots that populated the city.
The Delhi Police officers knew that if the information was withheld, things would take a dark turn. They felt the pressure.
2012, 2022: Victim Blaming Continues
I felt that there was a need for sensitivity training for both journalists and police personnel. This was no new feeling. In all the cases I had covered on gender-related crimes, what came to the fore was apathy and heartlessness.
Sadly, merely days after the incident, a section of the society and media began questioning why the victim was out at 8.30 pm. Why was she with a male friend? Why did she go for a movie with him? We quickly moved from shock and anger to victim blaming.
Two cases, two dead women, 10 years apart – what has changed in our society? It's almost as though these two women are to be blamed for what happened to them.
While covering the 2012 case, some reporters went to the extent of saying that this was a cautionary tale of why women should not be allowed to step out at night – just like Walkar's case, which, too, is a "cautionary tale" against interfaith relationships and live-ins.
When I had met Asha Devi, the victim's mother, she said, “Maine na usko bye bola bas aur woh chali gayi, mujhe nahi pata tha woh vaapis nahi aayegi… Kya mujhe rokna chahiye tha usse? Kya maine galti kari?"
Society made her feel guilty, but she didn't know why.
Reporters – especially crime reporters – tend to develop a thick skin as they move from reporting one tragedy to another. I had too. But one day, I met Asha Devi at her home, in a room where all of her daughter's belongings remained untouched – her books, a teddy bear, and her clothes. I didn't know what to ask her anymore. She stood in a corner and cried, and so did I. I was her daughter's age, and she was my mother's age. Her pain was unfathomable.
Strangely though, a year or two later, it felt as though the media was "irritated" with Asha Devi. Some accused her of using her daughter's death as an opportunity to get compensation or jobs for her sons.
People said Asha Devi gave interviews all the time and had nothing new to say. What did we expect from her? What "new" bytes did we expect? She was not a character on a TV show; she was a woman who had lost her only daughter to such a brutal crime. She was angry, she had the right to be angry, and no one had the right to judge her or the family.
Navigating this conversation at home wasn't easy either. At home, my father's protective instincts made him say, "I don't want you to go out. Imagine this has happened in south Delhi. This job is not something you should continue doing." I fought back.
Naïve Hope for Change: The Historic India Gate Protest of 2012
Soon, widespread protests broke out in the country. I covered the historic protest at India Gate. Was I hopeful of change? Yes. I had never seen a protest of this scale – men, women, children, young, and old.
Everyone wanted justice and change. I felt that finally, someone would take notice of the fact that this was how the system worked and that some change would happen – perhaps, in the form of CCTV cameras, traffic police, or more vigilance. But as a reporter, I was also cynical. It wasn't just the system that needed fixing, it was also the mentality of the public.
I live in the United Kingdom now with two Chinese women who are my flatmates. I recently told them that a decade ago, there was a gang rape in Delhi, and before I could finish my sentence, one of them said, "Oh, the one in the moving bus…"
One of my flatmates is 22 years old. In 2012, she was 12 – and she knew about the gang rape. The case had made international headlines at the time and had stayed with anyone who had read or heard about it.
When I look back now, I think about the role of the media – did we learn any lessons? Could we have done better? I am unsure of the answers. The media made sure that they put a lot of pressure on the police, with 24X7 tickers on news channels and eight-column headlines in papers. There were follow-ups for years on the case as it went to the courts and the convicts to the gallows.
The nature of news has now changed, especially with social media playing a huge role in how readers absorb information. There is such an overload, and the attention span has only become shorter, with readers moving on to the next big story quickly.
I wish we had placed this case at the centre of our reportage back then, but we moved on. We forgot her too quickly and reduced her to "Nirbhaya" or a statistic. The media is doing this to Shraddha Walkar – a decade later. They were both human beings made of flesh and bones, and not just headlines.
(Shalini Narayan has completed her Master's degree in International Relations at the University of Sheffield in 2022 and is based in the UK. She worked at The Indian Express between 2010 and 2015 as an investigative journalist reporting on issues of gender-based violence, human rights violations, terrorism, riots, politics, and infrastructure.)
(As told to Somya Lakhani)