Rarely has India, a country of more than a billion people, been so vigorously shaken out of its collective stupor than it has been in the recent days over the horrifying ordeal of a young woman on a speeding bus.
Ever since news broke that the 23-year-old medical student was brutally gang-raped by several men at the back seat of a bus in the nation’s capital New Delhi, shock, shame and outrage have engulfed India in equal measure.
Angry residents across Delhi and other cities have taken to the streets to protest. Stung by the outpouring over anger, even normally inert politicians and bureaucrats have joined the clamour for the harshest punishment for the culprits.
"New Delhi is no longer a safe place for women, and it's difficult to step outside of one's home after dusk."
-Ayesha Ahmed, a resident
"It’s a day of national shame," lamented Jaya Bachchan, a member of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian parliament which saw members cutting across party lines sink their differences to join ranks in condemning the crime.
"Rapists should be hanged," said Neeraj Kumar, Delhi’s top police official, who said that he had never come across any other attack in his long career that matched the recent one's brutality.
Grisly details of what happened that night on the bus are continuing to emerge, as the girl battles for her life in a hospital. Several of her vital organs have been damaged after she and her male companion were beaten up by the assailants before being thrown off the bus.
Doctors at the Safdarjung Hospital are cautiously optimistic that the girl would eventually pull through. But it has done precious little to heal the scars that the mindless brutality has left either on the nation’s conscience or Delhi’s reputation.
If at all, it has further bolstered Delhi’s notoriety as an extremely unsafe city where women face various forms of abuse almost on a daily basis.
"New Delhi is no longer a safe place for women, and it's difficult to step outside of one's home after dusk," says Ayesha Ahmed, a former resident who now lives in Mumbai.
Rising rape cases
Figures compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau back the claim. New Delhi registered 572 rape cases last year - more than any of the other big cities in the country like Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore. Jagori, a women’s rights organisation, says the city leads the country in crimes against women - including rape, molestation, dowry harassment and domestic violence.
Even an Al Jazeera documentary a few months ago uncovered the ugly truth hidden behind Delhi’s glitzy exterior: some 80 percent of women in a city of 20 million complained of having been sexually harassed. Also, an astonishing four-fifths of all women said they feared for their safety on streets, especially at night.
But why is New Delhi so particularly unsafe?
A host of reasons are normally cited, depending on who you ask. A top police official told the NDTV television channel that the rising figures reflected growing women empowerment. They are better educated and informed and they are more prone to register cases than ever before, he said.
What the official, however, conveniently overlooked was poor policing and abysmal conviction rate that allows rapists often a free run.
101 East - Unintended consequences
"The police have their priorities skewed," complains B Arun, a journalist with a prominent newspaper. Theoretically, Delhi has a policeman for every 223 people, but what’s unstated is that most of their duty hours are spent on protecting the teeming number of political leaders who crowd the nation’s capital.
Policing streets therefore is shoddy as is investigation of crime. Compared to 44 percent in 1973, conviction rate in rape cases in had plummeted to below 26 percent by 2010.
"Police machinery needs to be reformed; [the] public has lost confidence in police," Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar, member of National Women’s Commission, told Al Jazeera.
Rufina Baptista Dave, a media coordinator who lives in New Delhi, is equally critical of the authorities.
"It is very difficult to step outside after 5-6pm. Many people come from different parts of the country and they feel that they can do anything and can get away with it," she said. "If police take strict action against culprits, it can send across the right message. Crimes are increasing here because the perpetrators go scot-free."
Some residents also blame the culture of impunity to Delhi’s proximity to power. It is easy to have links here with political leaders - big and small - and that makes many to feel powerful themselves. Being drunk on power is a recipe for criminality, says Arun.
Ayesha Ahmed, the former Delhi resident, concurs. "Most of the men involved in such crimes have [a] powerful background. When caught by police, they simply escape by saying, 'do you know who I am?' Till they have such 'powerful backing' it is difficult to contain crimes against women," she says.
In the rallies and candle light vigils being held for the hapless girl across the country, there is renewed hope that India would shed its complacency finally.
Tweets sent out by Bollywood celebrities captured the mood on the streets.
Actor Arjun Rampal tweeted: "New set of laws and more severe punishments are required for these kind of criminals. Rapist should be publicly flogged. No more tolerance."
Actress Juhi Chawla went a step further: "Sometimes I wish our laws were as simple & strict as tooth for tooth & an [sic] eye for an eye. Crimes like this wouldn't happen!"