by Ina Puri

The Indian flag will not fly at half-mast to mark the passing of a young woman on the 29th of December 2012. 
If permission is given, then people will gather at Jantar Mantar at 11.00am to condone the death of the unnamed ?rape victim? at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore, in the wee hours of the morning.
Wreaths will be laid, candles lit and speeches made in her memory.
Who knows, there may even be an award or two for her as the Government publicly acknowledges her fight against death.
And in our memories, she will remain the young martyr, who battled against all odds till her body finally gave up, battered and broken beyond repair.
Jantar Mantar, the people?s platform, will today be the venue for a memorial for an ordinary woman who lived an ordinary life and pursued ordinary dreams till a twist of faith brought her into all our lives even as she struggled to breathe. Without meaning to, she acquired the status of a braveheart who captured the hearts of people who didn?t even know her name. She wasn?t a soldier at Siachen, she wasn?t Anna Hazare; she was simply an anonymous girl who was making her way home after an evening out with a friend.
This is the story of ?Nirbhaya?, a brave young woman who did not set out looking for fame and glory. All she wanted, desperately, was to live, to go back home to her family and to her life. Almost comatose, she was unable to speak but wrote on a slip of paper to her mother: Main jeena chahtee hoon. Her wish remained unfulfilled, and despite the government?s face-saving attempt to whisk her away to a medical centre in Singapore, she suffered cardiac arrests and multi-organ failure to hasten the end.
Public outcry and the baying for vengeance have led to unprecedented scenes on the capital?s main arteries, choking with students and citizens of all ages, who have come out on the roads braving the severe cold demanding stringent laws and punishment to be meted out to the culprits. In the past, these demonstrations have resulted in confrontations with the police and casualties on both sides, but that doesn?t seem to be in the minds of the protestors today as they march side by side in solidarity with the victim?s cause.
Today, in this desolate moment, we have become a nation of activists who are beyond rage, beyond anger. There is, instead, deep despair and grief. An anguish that touches the core of every Indian. In distant Singapore, even as her mortal body is being embalmed, readied for her last journey, there is the hope that she finds peace, at last.
Even as news filters in that Section 144 is being imposed in the capital.
Across the nation, social networking sites are exploding with messages of grief, frames of black appearing like badges worn in mourning. Media frenzy has ensured that the tragic news has reached every household in the country but will we have learnt a lesson at the end of it all?
Dr Jabbar Patel points out that in a feudal society it is very often the male who has the upper hand and it is the son who more often than not gets his way with his family. Patel believes that it is crucial to start changing this mindset prevalent in rural (and to an extent urban) societies from an early stage.
As a doctor practicing in Daund (Maharashtra) with his gynecologist partner, Patel has often had to deal with cases of young girls who had been raped but were afraid to inform their family members fearing punishment and worse. He speaks of rape occurring regularly at shelters, homes for destitute girls, prisons with the victims silenced (threatened), and no one is any wiser.
The perception that women can be taken advantage of, as the weaker sex, needs to be changed from the average Indian male?s mindset; we need to educate (children and adults alike), we need to make counseling available at all levels across society and we need to introduce harsher laws to punish the perpetrators in order to bring about a gradual transformation. We need a sympathetic police force, more women to deal with sex offenders. We also need to publicly chastise public servants with a chauvinistic approach to gender-related crimes.
Travelling across Bengal (Birbhum) and Kerala in the past two weeks I met with artists and artisans who were united in decrying the vicious assault of our un-named victim. The powers that be must address the cause urgently and announce fast track courts to bring the perpetrators to justice NOW. Years ago, I remember slapping a man at the crowded Book Fair in Kolkata as he brushed deliberately past me and made a lewd comment. Within minutes, a crowd gathered and the offender was publicly hauled up for his behaviour.
Recently, on a First Class compartment, when a co-passenger behaved indecently, I pushed him out of the coupe hoping my agitated voice would attract the attention of others on the train. To my horror, not one person came forward. In desperation, I called my brother, then with Indian Express and told him of my situation, insisting he inform the police immediately. The man got off at the next station and disappeared in the crowds. Sexual harassment knows no age or class, in our country and most Indian women have horrific tales to share especially if they happen to be travelling alone or even with a companion. In the otherwise affluent area of Gurgaon women are stalked, assaulted and harassed on a routine basis but despite repeated complaints there is no policeman in sight, the one police station is a modest Thaana which does little to instill confidence in the force.
Kolkata, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Patiala, Kochi, Patna, Manipur?the list of places where crimes have happened again and again is endless. India is a patriarchal society we are told and it is for the woman to take care of herself. Such medieval mindsets must not be allowed to prevail. As a nation, we must take pride in the women achievers and treat them as equals, this is the least we can do after decades of Independence.
Across the nation, there is a need to reassure women that such heinous crimes will not go unpunished. The time to build trust and heal is here. While the punishment to the rapist-murderers must be harsh, it is the deeper malaise within our society that we must address ourselves. The names that have been victims of gender crimes read like a roll call anyway, but the real list is horror-inducing, if we were privy to it.
Accountability begins now, at homes and panchayats, at public fora and schools. We need to take responsibilities and make a difference to lives around us. A battered and bruised, mutilated girl had pleaded to her doctors ? mujhe bacha lo, main jeena chahtee hoon. Now, as her body comes back home, let us try in our own ways to keep her spirit alive.
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Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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