One cold December night in 2012 a young woman went to see a film. Life of Pi to be precise. She never made it back home. Gang raped in a bus, a metal rod inserted in her, she became someone else. She did not choose her new name as she fought for her life in a hospital while a nation stood in candlelight vigil. The media chose it. Perhaps it was too cumbersome to keep calling her the “victim of the December 16 gangrape.” So the media baptized her Nirbhaya or the Fearless One. She was also called Amanat. Damini. Jagruti. But Nirbhaya was the name that stuck.
But as soon she became Nirbhaya her own biographical details disappeared under the heavy responsibility of that new identity. At some point we even stopped putting quotes around “Nirbhaya”. As she was placed on a pedestal, it was easy to forget she never chose to be Braveheart. She only chose to watch a film and then go home.
Now the young man who was technically a minor at the time of that rape has been released in accordance with the Juvenile Justice Act. It seems unfair but it’s the law. There has been outrage, last-minute petitions to the court, angry protests, political grandstanding. But if any sliver of good has come out of this rancour, it is from something the victim’s mother has said.
Asha Singh who has been campaigning fiercely against the release of the youngest rapist said publicly “My daughter was Jyoti Singh and I am not ashamed to name her.” She no longer needs to be Nirbhaya. Or Damini. Or even India’s Daughter. She can be Jyoti Singh once again.
How strange it is that when those men raped her in the bus, they ended up taking her identity too. Now in a weird twist of fate, the release of one of them has allowed her identity to be freed as well from its own black box.
The reason for cloaking rape victims and survivors in anonymity is well-intentioned. It is to protect them from social stigma which is real. But in the process they become symbols rather than people, projections of our aspirations for them. Nirbhaya, by definition, has no fear. But surely that night Jyoti was terribly afraid when she realized she had boarded a bus that was not an ordinary bus at all but a journey into a nightmare. She fought like the devil, leaving bite marks on the accused but how terrified she must have been.
Only when we think of Jyoti in that bus, without the force-shield of Nirbhaya, can we even begin to imagine that heart-sinking moment. Nirbhaya insulates us from Jyoti’s terror. It is only when we know her name, that the tragedy of that brutally truncated life, also hits with a punch to the gut. Jyoti’s father sold his ancestral land and worked double shifts so his children could go to a private English medium school, a ticket out of their lower middle-class existence. Jyoti worked at a call center to pay her bills, Jyoti wanted to be a physiotherapist. Jyoti was real. Nirbhaya is merely an outline that we fill in with our own agendas.
With Nirbhaya returned to Jyoti, the only person left in anonymity is the rapist who was a minor. His old history will be expunged. He is apparently with an NGO. Ironically his personhood has become a tug-of-war as well. Many of those who believe he has not served adequately for his crime, want his photograph and name to be released to the world. Old enough to rape, old enough to face its consequences, they say. They want to make him a person because their anger needs a real human target.
On the other hand there are others who are emphasizing his personal story as well to humanize him, talking about the grinding poverty he comes from, the father with psychiatric problems, the mother who cannot get up from bed and has not seen him for years. He was a runaway, not fed adequately or shown affection. Filmmaker Leslee Udwin tells Ceylon Today that he was not the “monster” the Indian media made him out to be and she had some “new evidence” to that effect she chose to leave out of her documentary India’s Daughter to not prejudice anyone during the case.
We hear now that he was perhaps more brutalized than brutal. We see the desperate trajectory of a boy without education– dhaba assistant, dishwasher, bus cleaner. All of that is true but none of that would have added up to calls for a second chance if he had been even a few months older at the time of the crime. He will get his second chance not because he is deserving but because he is fortunate that the law allows him. And to be fair, unlike some celebrities he is not bending the law to his advantage. Even if the Congress decides to move forward with the amended Juvenile Justice Act in the Rajya Sabha today, it cannot be retroactive.
He might not be a “monster” just as Jyoti does not have to be a saint but the danger of going overboard in humanizing someone like him is that it risks turning him into a victim as well. That somehow seems grossly unfair to the young couple he and his friends victimized so ruthlessly. The bleakness of this young man’s poverty is undeniable but it cannot become in any way an excuse for his crimes. That would be a disservice to Jyoti and her family’s dogged attempt to better their own lot, to rise above their own modest means. Most of all it would be a disservice to thousands of poor people, who also lead hardscrabble poverty-stricken lives without becoming rapists and murderers. And no one gives them a tailoring shop either.
In Life of Pi, the writer tells Pi Patel “So your story does have a happy ending.” And he replies “Well, that’s up to you. The story’s yours now.”
Jyoti is gone. And this nameless young man, reformed or not, will disappear from our radar as well. But their story is ours now and we can read whatever lesson we want into it. But our anger and frustration stems from knowing that it will never have the ending we want for it.
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