The victim’s mother addresses the media outside Gate No. 5 of the Delhi High Court. (Express Photo: Ankita Dwivedi Johri)
Around 3 pm on January 15, she strides out of the courtroom, followed by a battery of lawyers holding case files. Her husband is a few paces behind her, letting her take the lead like she has all these years. At Gate No. 5 of the Delhi High Court, she plunges straight into the storm of jostling mediapersons with their cameras, microphones and tangled wires. And launches into a blistering attack on the investigators, the court, and the government.
Around this time of the year, the 50-year-old mother of the Delhi gangrape victim is the most recognisable face on national television. Cardigan over sari, wrapped in a shawl, her “bytes” seeking “nothing but death” for her daughter’s rapists beamed on national television every December 16, a date that has defined her every living moment since that dark night of 2012 when six men had raped the eldest of her three children, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, in a moving bus and left her for dead. Thirteen days later, she had died in a Singapore hospital. Last week, a Delhi court issued death warrants for four of the six accused to be hanged on February 1.
In 2019, 102 put on death row
the Delhi gang rape accused may be the first to be executed in India since the 2015 hanging of Bombay blasts convict Yakub Memon. As they file mercy petitions, and a debate brews on death penalty as a deterrent, the Supreme Court said Thursday that the “finality” of a death sentence was important. Meanwhile, as per Project 39A of National Law University, Delhi, while trial courts handed out 102 death sentences in 2019, in the 27 cases heard in the apex court, 17 saw commutations and 3 acquittals while 2 were sent for fresh trial.
Now looking straight into the camera, the mother says, “Today the Delhi government told the court that the convicts cannot be hanged on January 22 as long as their mercy petition is pending before the President. Why are they doing this? If in a big case like this we cannot get justice, what happens to the others? I want to ask the government, the court, why are they delaying it?”
She repeats the same lines tirelessly to reporter after reporter, camera after camera, for an hour — breaking down in some frames, fuming in others.
While the gang rape case shook the Capital, prompting protests across the country, and leading to tougher anti-rape laws, it thrust the victim’s family into a turbulent maze of police stations, courtrooms and television studios — a world far removed from the ordinariness of their middle-class lives.
“I was a simple housewife. I would go nowhere without my husband. Since my daughter’s death, however, our life has been about court dates, meeting this or that person, talking to journalists... Kuchch hosh nahin hai (Nothing makes sense),” she tells The Sunday Express, taking a break from the cameras.
Last week, a Delhi court issued death warrants for four of the six accused to be hanged on February 1.
She is, by now, used to the hot glare of the television camera lights, the prying, predictable questions about her daughter, the rapists, whether she thinks they deserve death, on rapes elsewhere in the country — Hyderabad, Unnao, Kathua. But rarely have these questions been about her. Had she had her tea this morning? Her lunch? How is she? What’s her story?
Minutes ago, outside Room No. 33 of the court, she had had a rare moment of privacy as she sat silently on a chair meant for the guard. Nearby, her husband paced the corridor that milled with advocates, law interns, policemen, a few reporters, murder convicts, and estranged couples, the air thrumming with their conversation. As her lawyer approached her, the 50-year-old, misty-eyed, her voice heavy, had asked, “Baais ko faansi hogi ya nahin (Will the rapists be hanged on January 22)?” The lawyer had nodded reassuringly, and escorted her to the courtroom.
Returning to the guard’s chair as the court broke for lunch, she said, “I have not had the time to think about my daughter in the past seven years. All I remember now are the nine-ten days that I saw her in hospital, her body and face bruised. Bas wahi chhavi hai (That’s the only image I remember).”
It’s that image that forces the mother to stick to her “only demand” — death for the rapists. “It was such a big case, I was convinced that justice will be done. But I am not so sure now... Darr lagta hai, koi jhatka na de sarkar (I am scared, hope the government doesn’t give us a shock),” she says. It’s this uncertainty that forces her to play her part every time the cameras roll, however tired she may be.
A Class 8 pass, she had come to the Capital from Uttar Pradesh as a young bride of 22, “around the age my daughter was when she died”, tears rolling freely down her face. “All my three children were born here. I was a very strict mother, always paid attention to their education. We didn’t have money, but we were happy. My daughter wanted to become a doctor since she was very little... She didn’t play with dolls, she roamed around with needles and acted as a doctor,” she says, breaking into a rare smile. “We couldn’t fulfill that dream of hers either, we didn’t have money for medical school.”
The 50-year-old mother of the Delhi gangrape victim is the most recognisable face on national television.
“But when she wanted to join the physiotherapy course, I supported her,” says her husband, who comes with a bottle of water for his wife. “Arre, par aise hee thode na maane the (But you didn’t agree so easily either),” she counters. “She had got admission but the fees was very steep. She locked herself up in a room and kept crying. Then my son told us, aap didi ko padha do, didi humein padha degi (you support didi’s education, she will support ours),” recalls the mother, as her husband adds, “I sold the only piece of land I had for her admission... She was very close to me. If she needed anything, she would tell me.”
Every time a reporter approaches the father, he says little, instead directing them to his wife. “We didn’t decide for her to speak, but somehow it just happened. A mother’s pain is very deep... I also need to go to work,” he says.
Since the incident, the 60-year-old has continued with his job at Delhi airport, but has never managed to clock full attendance. “I have to take leaves for court dates. I earn Rs 24,000 a month, but that money is cut when I miss work,” he says.
Another reporter pulls the mother aside for a “byte” and she talks about her fatigue with the legal system that has taken seven years for the rapists to be punished.
It was during one such “byte” — soon after four alleged rapists of a Hyderabad veterinarian were shot to death by police recently — that she had said she was “extremely happy with this punishment... and no action should be taken against the policemen”.
Now that the cameras are off, she allows herself a rare moment of reflection. She admits to being confused. “So far I have shown full faith in the system... But I have got nothing after seven years. At least the Hyderabad family would be feeling some sense of justice. But then, I can’t help wonder if killing the rapists is a solution... But these men definitely need to be hanged for what they did,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears again. “I feel I haven’t slept peacefully in years.”
Has she sought help, counselling to cope with the trauma? “Rehne dijiye, kaun karega hamari counselling. Koi nahin poochta ye sab (Forget it, who will counsel us? No one talks to us about such issues),” she says, as the couple ready to leave for home, a long Metro ride away.
At the two-room house given to them by the Delhi government, there are no photographs of their daughter or even her belongings — only memories of their lives after her. A glass shelf is stacked with photographs of the couple with the Prime Minister, politicians and diplomats, who promised to help or honoured the family for their “daughter’s sacrifice”. On another wall, hangs a framed poster of the ‘Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust’ which the family instituted to help women victims of violence, and which is often a ready backdrop for their television interviews and photographs. “I have decided not to put up any pictures of my daughter in the house till the rapists are hanged,” says the mother.
Despite their avowed stance, there have been moments, they admit, when a niggling thought has crossed their minds: what if even death to the rapists fails to bring them closure?
“But it (death to the rapist-killers) was my daughter’s last wish, it’s my wish now too,” says the father. The mother simply nods, switching on the television to see how the news channels are reporting the day’s hearing in the Delhi High Court. As she makes tea, she rarely has a minute’s rest, juggling calls from relatives and reporters and responding to messages and posts on WhatsApp and Facebook while scrolling through groups and pages such as ‘Justice for Nirbhaya’ and ‘We are with Nirbhaya’.
“For us, incidents of rape were only newspaper headlines. Only when we faced it did we realise what hundreds of families across the country go through,” says the mother. “Many of them call me for help. Earlier, I didn’t know what to do when they called; now I refer them to NGOs. It’s hard to fight these battles alone. After the incident, we got a lot of help. But now we are alone. I hardly cook at home. I have sent my sons away, I don’t want their lives to be ruined... Her friend (who was with the victim on the night of the incident) is now married, he came to tell us about the shaadi,” she adds.
Finally, as she settles down with a cup of tea, the only thing she has consumed all day, she says she often wonders, “What was my daughter’s role in the world? Why was she born? Just to go through this pain? What is our role?” These are the thoughts that she goes to bed with every night, thoughts that hit her unfailingly every morning. “That is why I turn up for every event, every interview, and every court hearing. I don’t know what I will do when it all ends... maybe I’ll focus on the Nirbhaya Trust. But the men must hang... As for us, hamari khushiyan toh hamesha ke liye chhin gayi hain, zindagi bhar ki saza hai (Our happiness has been snatched forever. We have been punished for a lifetime),” she says.