Partial Justice

Ten years on, the Nirbhaya case still propels a narrow imagination of rape and punishment

Protesters hold placards and shout slogans in Delhi shortly after the gang rape of a woman in December 2012. Death penalty for the accused was one of the primary demands of the public. RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images
28 February, 2023

There was unusual activity outside Delhi’s Tihar Jail in the pre-dawn hours of 20 March 2020. The jail’s security had been fortified with additional battalions of the central reserved police force, and a crowd of spectators and media persons were gathered outside. As morning drew closer, the crowd began to get more and more energised. The moment that they had been waiting for was almost here—at 5.30 am, four convicts accused of gangraping a woman in Delhi in 2012, were due to be hanged.

Anchors on mainstream news channels, who had been delivering high-octane coverage through the night, began a jubilant countdown a few minutes before the execution. When the clock struck five-thirty, cheers went up in the studios and the crowd. One protestor distributed sweets, another held up a placard proclaiming the morning as the “the dawn of justice.” TV channel headlines announced that justice had “finally” been delivered and that the rapists got “what they deserve.”

This past winter marked ten years since the rape of Jyoti Singh, which came to be known as the Nirbhaya case. The incident had sparked massive protests and uproar, bringing the case into national spotlight. Thousands in Delhi protested near Parliament and candle light vigils were held at the India Gate. The case became a pivotal moment. The discourse on sexual violence in India can now be cleanly divided into a pre- and post-Nirbhaya phase. 

The case had suddenly opened up room for an unprecedented mainstream engagement with the question of sexual violence, across the urban Indian public. Foundational feminist ideas, such as “rape culture” and systemic patriarchy, suddenly entered common parlance. The media was rife with debates on gendered discrimination and women’s rights. There have since been innumerable attempts to address sexual violence in films, shows, advertisements, music and art. Every time a gang rape makes the headlines, which it does often, the Nirbhaya case is likely to find a mention.