Bring white roses, some suggested. Get angry, some said. Don’t resort to violence, others begged.
Let’s not let her die in vain, they said.
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As India awoke Saturday to the death of a 23-year-old woman who has become a symbol of what many say all that is wrong with the way women are treated here, the country’s young, social-network-savvy population sprang into action, organizing and advertising protests, candlelight vigils and marches from Cochin, Kerala, to India’s outsourcing headquarters of Bangalore to Mumbai’s Juhu Beach.
India’s Internet penetration rates are still low, and the percentage of people who have computers is miniscule. Still, the country has 60 million Facebook subscribers, a fast-growing presence on Twitter and a student population that seems to be quickly awakening to activism. The rape that occurred Dec. 16, and what is seen as the government’s tin-eared response to the incident, had already galvanized this small sliver of India’s 1.3 billion people to action. The victim’s death Saturday morning in Singapore, of organ failure related to her injuries, seems to have pushed them further.
The victim, a 23-year old physiotherapy student, was attacked by six men on a moving bus on Dec. 16 and left to die on the side of a Delhi highway. When thousands of protesters gathered in India Gate days after the attack, they were arrested, beaten with sticks and tear-gassed without, many claim, any provocation.
Hoping to avoid a repeat of those incidents, the Delhi government shut all roads leading in to the area early Saturday morning, closed nearby Metro stations and deployed hundreds of police officers.
Protesters began massing instead at Jantar Mantar, an ancient observatory and popular demonstration site. Despite the limits to transportation, which also included cutting down buses plying nearby routes, protesters claimed that their numbers had reached more than 500 by early afternoon, and new attendees continued to stream into the area. Here’s what a few of them had to say:
Kavita Krishnan, activist, All India Progressive Women’s Association, who is leading protests at Jantar Mantar:
“It’s time to call for mourning and for serious reflection,” in India, and to ask “What’s wrong with our society that produces this?”
“The government’s response until now has been abysmal,” she said, adding that top members of Parliament have made sexist remarks. “There are no persuasive voices in government,” she said.
Although a judicial commission has been formed as a response to the crisis, and is accepting recommendations about changes in the legal system, they are not engaging with women’s groups, she said. “There are no members with experience in gender jurisprudence” in the commission, she said.
Upamanyu Raju, 21, a student at Delhi University, who was protesting at Jantar Mantar:
He has been protesting since a day after the rape victim was admitted to hospital because of “utter atrocity” of what happened to her. “We have to make sure we come out, and this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
He wants judicial and police reforms and a stringent sexual harassment law. “We will not leave the protests until the government takes action,” he said. He was shocked to hear news of victim’s death this morning. “She’s been our driving force for the last so many days, so it was a shock to lose her,” he said.
It will take time before society changes its attitudes towards women, he said. He added that a car full of men tried to abduct a female friend of his 6 p.m. at a busy intersection in central Delhi. “People have become bold,” he said.
He is worried about his sister, who is 17. He’s given her a Swiss Army knife and pepper spray, but worries that won’t protect her, and neither can he. “Even if she’s accompanied, it doesn’t help,” he said. “It’s wrong to stop girls from going out” he said, but says there’s little choice.
The government and the police appear out of touch with citizens, he said. “They’re not allowing us to protest, which is bringing out violent instincts in people,” he said. “The police don’t seem to understand the emotions of the people.”
Neha Sharma, 24, a Delhi University student from Krishna Nagar in East Delhi, who was protesting in Jantar Mantar:
“We want justice,” she said. “There are so many rape cases pending.” Capital punishment is not the way forward, she said. Instead, “we need to fix the system,” she said, but the government and police are not taking any steps to do so.
She has been coming to protests over the Delhi rape case since they started. “I come with the hope that things will change,” she said.
In South Delhi, hundreds of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University organized a silent march from their campus to Munirka, the bus stop where the Delhi rape victim was picked up. The crowd of protesters trudged along a busy road, a few holding hastily-made placards with phrases like “You are an inspiration to us all.”
Meha Thakore, 25, a sociology student at the silent march to Munirka, said: “We expect certain demands to be met by the government,” but she said the government is not meeting them. Echoing the thoughts of many protesters in India, Ms. Thakore said she believed that the transfer of the Delhi rape victim to a Singapore hospital was “to divert attention and avert crisis and chaos.”
Ruchira Sen, 25, a student of economics on the march to Munirka, said:
“There’s a movement that has been built out of this. We are going to do everything it taken to make it last.”
Students and activists groups have a list of demands they have presented to the government, she said, including the fast-tracking of rape cases through India’s courts, improved training for police to handle rape cases and the dismissal of the Delhi police commissioner.