Rest in peace, Nirbhaya

December 31, 2012 § 3 Comments

Anti-rape demonstrators in New Delhi.

Anti-rape demonstrators in New Delhi.

There’s been anger, sadness and shame in India over the ordeal of a young woman who was raped and critically injured by a gang of men on a bus in the capital, New Delhi. This shock reached an apogee on Saturday, December 29, when the unnamed 23 year old medical student died of her injuries in Singapore 12 days after being attacked.

The outpouring on social media has coalesced around a number of hashtags on Twitter including #delhigangrape, #delhirape and #braveheart. The Indian news media have christened her Amanat, Damini and Nirbhaya. Each of those names have been trending and now one of the most used hashtags is #RIPNirbhaya.

The Times of India says it started the trend to call the young medical student Nirbhaya which in Hindi means ‘fearless’. The other translation is ‘braveheart’ and she’s being called India’s braveheart which lends itself to being another of the trending hashtags used to express the grief and rage of many Indian Twitter users.

Facebook which is used by 60 million Indians has also been a venue of similar sentiments. This Times of India article shows just how many Indians have taken to the Internet to demonstrate their feelings and another TOI report says many Indians have turned their social media avatars to black in sympathy.

One tweet aggregator and tracking website, Twee.dot.co, says #RIPNirbhaya tweets ranked seventh in the world on December 29 when the word from Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital where she was being given specialist care was that she had passed away. The news burst onto Twitter and within hours, using Trendsmap, it is possible to see where the majority of #RIPNirbhaya tweets were originating.

As seen in the screen grab below, taken early on Sunday morning New Zealand Time, the main sources are the major cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Also featured are Hyderabad, Chennai and Calcutta.

Trendsmap image of #RIPNirbhaya hashtag tweets in India.

Trendsmap image of #RIPNirbhaya hashtag tweets in India.

Here is a sampling of some of the tweets.

There are tweets from celebrities, prominent media figures and even foreign diplomats. The actors, Shah Rukh Khan, Sonam Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan, the tennis player Sania Mirza, the cricketer Yuvraj Singh, and the CNN-IBN television anchor, Sagarika Ghose, are among those that tweeted their tributes to the young woman.

If the reaction on Twitter and other social media platforms is representative, this crime that has convulsed India is to become a rallying point for changing attitudes in what is ostensibly a chauvinistic and patriarchal country. As one woman protestor told the BBC World Service, the movement sparked by this terrible news story is not just a protest but a revolution.

Many fair-minded Indians will be hoping that this crime will be, in the words of one Indian commentator, an inflexion which marks a turning point towards achieving a society that eventually values baby girls as highly as boys. This in a country where ultrasound and foeticide are commonly practised to ensure the greater likelihood that a baby is a boy.

In India, sexual harassment is commonly known by the euphemism ‘eve teasing’ which makes it seem almost a playful activity.  But the death of the young woman that has galvanised Indian society has shown the phrase to have a sinister edge and shone a spotlight on the issue of sex crimes – most of which go unreported in India for a range of reasons. These include the reluctance of victims to report rape because the authorities are unresponsive and if the case goes through the legal system, it may be years before it comes to trial. Even then, conviction rates are woefully low.

Perhaps #RIPNirbhaya will go some way to changing India’s sexual inequality despite the depressing reality that there are untold Nirbhayas who will remain far from the public gaze. But for a short time at least, the news media will be looking to tell their stories and the government will be keen to demonstrate its willingness to listen.

Postscript:  Since I wrote this, Google India has created its own tribute.

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