Remembering Nirbhaya | The Tragedy That Shook the Nation in December 2012

Have the new laws, catalysed by the gruesome gang rape and murder, made any difference? Both yes and no.

6 min read
Hindi Female

The end finally came after the world celebrated Christmas and was getting easy for New Year. Perhaps death was a welcome relief for the young woman as her body had been so badly and savagely brutalised for hours on end that even doctors in India had more or less given up.

The few doctors who did look after her described both her physical and mental pain as unbearable to watch. Many still think that her trauma and painful death did not go in vain. That it serves as a wake-up call to Indian society, that her gang rape and murder did lead to the formation of more effective laws, and that it did lead to more humane processes being adopted by cops whose behaviour often inflicts even more trauma on victims.

But then both the authors think back to those tumultuous days eleven years ago and wonder: is that all true or did she suffer and die in vain?


The more discerning readers would have almost certainly figured out who the authors are talking about. In case you haven’t, the authors are talking about “Nirbhaya”. India is periodically, in fact frequently, convulsed by barbaric acts of rape and gang rape.

There are protests but mostly sporadic and localised. If rival political parties and “activists” sense that the horrific gang rape can be “leveraged” to embarrass the ruling regime in a state, they descend onto the “crime scene” like packs of vultures. All political parties and “activists” of all ideological hues are guilty of this in contemporary India. To that extent, the ordinary Indian is shocked by such crimes but shrugs cynically at the political and ideological games played in the aftermath. But the gang rape, torture, mutilation, and worse that happened to Nirbhaya was unique in the sense that it galvanised the poor and the middle class to express their outrage by taking to the streets.

Unlike many manufactured protests, the ones for Nirbhaya were spontaneous and organic. They gathered across India; they mocked the cops, and they heckled some prominent journalists who were (fairly or unfairly) perceived as giving cover fire to the then-ruling UPA (United Progressive Alliance). The political career of one of the rare graceful and effective chief ministers Sheila Dixit was toast as she became collateral damage in the train wreck that the UPA had become in those days.

There would be many who might have forgotten what happened in December 2012 because of a constant barrage of information overload. Here is a summary.

Nirbhaya was a 23-year-old physiotherapist with two younger brothers, whose mother Asha Devi was a homemaker and her father a poor migrant from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh working as a loader in an airline. They lived in Dwarka, Delhi. On 16 December 2012, she and her male friend watched the movie Life of Pi at a multiplex and boarded a bus that had six people. Almost immediately, five of them attacked the male friend with an iron rod, broke his limbs, and rendered him temporarily unconscious. They then set upon her like a pack of feral dogs. She resisted fiercely and subsequent investigations disclosed she had bitten the rapists repeatedly in a bid to ward them off. Her resistance was in vain.

The five men and one juvenile not only gang raped her repeatedly inside the bus but also brutalised her body savagely. Subsequent medical examination revealed that her abdomen, intestine, and genitals were severely damaged, almost certainly due to the use of an iron rod to pierce her private parts. After violating her time and again, the culprits threw her and her male friend off the bus. She was taken to Safdarjung Hospital after some passerby informed the police. She was airlifted to Singapore in a last-ditch attempt to save her life.

But she died on 29 December 2012. All the six culprits were arrested within days of the crime. One of them allegedly hanged himself in Tihar jail a few months later. The age of the juvenile as per school records was six months short of 18 at the time of the crime. He was convicted of rape and murder by a Juvenile Court and sentenced to the maximum possible three years. He was released and rehabilitated after serving his “sentence”. The other four were convicted and sentenced to death. They were hanged in 2020 in Tihar jail.


It would be wrong to say that Nirbhaya died in vain. At least one positive change her horror triggered was changes in the law related to sexual assault on women. A committee to recommend an overhaul of the existing laws was set up soon after Nirbhaya died. It was headed by the retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court J S Verma. Acting decisively and with clarity, the committee sought and received thousands of suggestions from multiple stakeholders, including ordinary citizens. The committee did submit a comprehensive list of suggestions very soon in 2013 and the Parliament passed a Bill making crucial amendments to laws governing assault on women.

It would take too long to list and discuss all the changes, but the amendments, at least on paper, ensured that a sexual assault victim is not treated with contempt by law enforcement authorities and that she is not compelled to relive her trauma in courtrooms where defense lawyers ask her repeatedly to say which private parts of her body were touched or attacked and how many times. Besides, the death penalty was added for more egregious cases of sexual assault. POCSO laws meant to tackle sexual crimes against minors were also made more stringent. Finally, the amended laws mandated the setting up of fast-track courts to deal with such cases all over the country.

Have the new laws made any difference? Both yes and no. There is no doubt that on a scale of one to ten, police officers have moved from one (the worst) to about five in showing sensitivity towards sexual assault victims. The worrying thing is that there has been no institutional or mindset change; the degree of sensitivity or compassion depends on individual police personnel. There is also no doubt that in many cases, fast-track courts have conducted speedy and effective trials and delivered verdicts in a quick time. But with time, even these fast-track courts are getting clogged up and victims have to endure endless delays to get justice. Besides, even though the amended laws are effective on paper, individual judges have been given a lot of leeway to deliver or change verdicts.

For instance, a migrant worker from Bihar was arrested in Delhi under provisions of the POCSO Act for molesting a minor girl. Since the trial was taking time, he got bail and moved to Kerala. In July 2023, he raped and mutilated a five-year-old girl in Aluva. CCTV footage helped the Kerala cops arrest and charge sheet him. A court in Kerala sentenced him to death in November 2023. But there is no guarantee that the parents of the five-year-old will get timely justice. For who knows how his appeals in higher courts will pan out?

In Madhya Pradesh, a man brutally raped and murdered a four-year-old girl. Arrested, tried, and convicted, he was given the death sentence. The appeal eventually landed before a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court. In April 2022, the bench commuted the death sentence to life and remarked in an attempt at philosophy: “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future”. The authors do not have the legal acumen or expertise to make any comment on such verdicts.

But what should cause outrage to those who genuinely expect women and girls and care for their safety and dignity is how even sexual assault has become a weapon to be “leveraged” in ideological wars. The authors have already mentioned the disgusting trend of politicians and activists with an axe to grind descending like a pack of vultures when a heinous gang rape happens. Even in the MeToo movement that erupted about five years ago, some culprits were judged evil while others were merely reprimanded lightly for a few acts of indiscretion. The lens, of course, was ideological.

When ideology compels you to countenance even pure evil, one wonders if victims like Nirbhaya will get justice.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Nirbhaya 

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