On December 29, 2012, as thousands of women with black tape across their mouths prayed in the national capital for the recovery of a 23-year-old physiotherapy graduate who had been gangraped and mutilated 13 days ago, two people already knew it was over. One was the victim, Nirbhaya, herself. The other was her mother, Asha Devi Pandey. “She knew she was dying,” says Asha Devi. She has spoken about that night a thousand times since, but this is one moment she shares sparingly, when she saw death in her daughter’s eyes.
“When the police first called, I thought she’d recover, that it was an accident. But then I saw her at the hospital. An animal would have shown her more mercy — her scalp had been torn near the neck by the force with which they pulled her hair, her cheeks had bite marks, her lips had only blood, her thighs were swollen from the number of times they beat her with an iron rod,” says Asha Devi. It has been seven years, but she remembers every last detail on her daughter’s face from that time, every word she managed to speak. “When I saw her on the hospital bed, begging for a drop of water I could not give her, the world ceased to exist for me.” Nirbhaya died on December 29 at the Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore.
But even as one world ended for her mother, another opened up. After her daughter’s death, intense public scrutiny became part of Asha Devi’s life. The first time she tucked a lapel mike into the pleats of her sari, the first time a camera flashed in her face, the first time someone asked her if she missed her daughter, she thought it would be her last. “I did not know it would continue this long,” she says. Today, she is immune to the cameras. She has spoken at countless award ceremonies, interacted with politicians, posed for pictures outside courtrooms and addressed huge gatherings of young students. In 2013, she would speak hesitantly, cry in bathrooms while awaiting her turn on stage, let others lead her. In 2020, she speaks with cool confidence, texts replies in between interviews and takes time to comb her hair for a photograph. Her husband does not give press interviews without her permission. Nor does she allow photographs to be taken in all parts of her new three-bedroom flat in Dwarka’s Sector 19, which the family received along with Rs 35 lakh compensation from the Congress government. Most of Nirbhaya’s pictures were deleted when the police took away her phone and pen drive. There is one picture of her in the puja room.
Born and raised outside of Ballia in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Asha Devi says she grew up on stories of violence and rape. “Men would enter homes and violate women; violence was an everyday story,” she says. According to her, she did “a little bit of schooling” and, in 1985, was married to Badrinath Singh Pandey, after which the couple moved to Delhi where he started work at a pressure cooker factory in the Titarpur area of Delhi. When Nirbhaya, their first child, was born on May 10, 1989, Badrinath distributed sweets worth Rs 1,000. Nirbhaya and her two brothers grew up in a two-room house in Dwarka’s Sector 8. This was the house she was returning to after watching her first English film, Life of Pi, at the Select Citywalk mall in Saket with her friend, Awindra Pratap Pandey, on December 16.
Nirbhaya’s parents outside the apex court on Dec. 17, 2019. (Photo: ANI)
A physiotherapy graduate from the Sai Institute of Paramedical & Allied Sciences in Dehradun, Nirbhaya had only just applied for an intern’s position at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi. According to Awindra, now a software engineer in Bengaluru, she loved shopping for shoes and watching movies and it was not unusual for them to meet at the Saket mall. That evening, she had told her mother she’d be back in “2-3 hours”. After the movie got over at 8 pm, the friends took an auto from Saket to Munirka. They couldn’t get transport to Dwarka and so boarded a private bus at around 8.15 pm, as Awindra revealed in his testimony. There were six men on board, the youngest of whom, just six months short of 18 at the time, later confessed that they had been drinking and were out for “a night of fun”. The men, who initially pretended to be passengers, soon turned off the lights and overpowered Awindra. They then took turns to rape Nirbhaya, even though, as per the juvenile’s statement, she kept “howling and crying”. They then threw both out of the moving bus.
When I saw her on the hospital bed, begging for a drop of water I could not give her, the world ceased to exist for me
“I had no thoughts about this city when I first came,” says Asha Devi. “I had a simple life. I looked after my family, believed in the dreams of my children. I did not stop my daughter from going out, she was a hard-working student.” Nirbhaya was the child the family hinged its hopes upon. By then her father had become a baggage loader at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, and would work double shifts to earn Rs 6,000 a month. Despite his meagre income, he sent Nirbhaya to a private, English-medium institution, the Broadway Public School, for five years before shifting her to a less expensive public school. To ensure Nirbhaya could attend college, he sold five bighas in Ballia for Rs 3 lakh, while Asha Devi sold some of her jewellery. “She was a simple girl, never asked for much,” recalls her mother. They were a lower middle-class family, eking out an ordinary existence. Affection was unspoken, unexpressed, but present in the decisions they made for their children. “My mother would never fuss over me,” says Asha Devi. “She would just look after me. We did the same for our daughter. I never knew what monsters were out there.”
Now, the time before her daughter’s death has ceased to exist for Asha Devi. “Nirbhaya’s last wish was for justice. That became my quest,” she says. Little did she know it also became the quest of thousands of women and men across the country. “I did not know there was public support at the time, my life was confined to the hospital,” recounts Asha Devi. “But one night, the doctor in Delhi took me outside, to show me I was not alone. I saw hundreds there to support us.”
Their new home gives them the luxury of space and facilities such as a fridge, oven and geyser. But a pall of gloom hangs over the now four-member family, and Asha Devi admits they do not speak about Nirbhaya to one another. “We have a better life now, but not our daughter,” says Badrinath, sitting before a framed picture of Indira Gandhi, among the few possessions they have brought into their new house. They also have the pink doll that belonged to Nirbhaya. The rest of their daughter’s belongings are in the old house where Asha Devi’s sister now lives. Nirbhaya’s elder brother Gaurav, whom Rahul Gandhi counselled after her death and sent to Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi in Raebareli, is now a pilot with Indigo. The family is protective, unwilling to give the name or profession of their younger son.
Seven years of legal battle against the accused has taken a toll of a different kind on Badrinath he now has blood sugar and knee problems. He still works at the airport, but now makes entry passes for Rs 20,000 a month. When Nirbhaya died, he had confessed in a press interview that he feared he would not have money for his daughter’s cremation. Grieving was how he coped with her death. It was Asha Devi who took the lead, who was more determined to not give up. “My wife had always been strong,” says Badrinath, “but after Nirbhaya, she became stronger.”
As she herself admits, justice, more precisely death for her daughter’s murderers, was the only thought on her mind. Even so, Asha Devi was unprepared for the trial ahead, for the character assassinations and accusations the defence would hurl at her. “The case was fast-tracked, everyone knew what had happened to Nirbhaya. And, yet, it dragged on. How can you have sympathy for someone who knowingly tore out the intestines of a young girl?” she asks. For the past two months, she has been going to the courts daily with her lawyers (two of whom have been with her from the start). “I take a bus and the metro to get to the court. By the time I get home, after listening to the vultures defend themselves, I am numb inside. People have taught me how to be a fighter.” She has never spoken to any of the accused.
Two other people have seen Asha Devi transform from a hapless mother to a determined fighter. Rajkumar Singh, a retired army personnel who served in the Kargil War, was the first to see Nirbhaya when she was thrown out of the bus and lay bleeding on the road in Mahipalpur. “I visit the family several times a month. Ashaji has fought for her family with steely determination. When I first met her, she was confused, now she has purpose,” he says.
Raj Kumar Anuragi is the other person outside the family who has been privy to Asha Devi’s transformation. He is a journalist and co-trustee of the Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust which was set up in 2012 to give women who have faced violence and their families legal assistance and shelter. “Ashaji had never been to court before, never even stepped out of her house alone. But she changed,” says Anuragi.
When asked how the case has changed her, Asha Devi says she is no longer the person she was before. “People come and visit, but eventually you return to daily life. Nobody sits with you all the time. You are ultimately alone in your mind,” she says.
Dr Raman Deep, a psychiatrist with AIIMS in Delhi who has counselled rape victims and their families, says that survivors guilt’ is a common psychiatric condition families of rape victims undergo. “The person recounts what could have been, they blame themselves for having survived when the relative is no more, even blame themselves for what has happened,” she explains. Unlike grief, which, as noted psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described in 1969, is overcome in five phases (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), rape trauma is overcome entirely differently, and often never on your own. “Our coping mechanism is like a bridge, if you put too much weight, it will break,” says Dr Deep. “In the case of survivor’s guilt, there is even greater trauma. First, there is a constant need for justice and how to make it better. Second, the last memory of the person is not pleasant and the survivor develops a personal sense of responsibility to get justice. Both these challenge our mechanisms, and acceptance does not come easily. To regain control of one’s life and sense of self, therapy is crucial.”
For Asha Devi, the world became her therapist. “When I go to colleges, young girls come to me and cry, saying they are just like my daughter. I have spoken to many people about what happened, so many come to me to tell me what has happened to them. Only two days ago, a mother came to me and we cried together, because she too lost a daughter,” she says.
But healing is not her priority. “I want my daughter’s rapists to hang.” FourMukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, Akshay Kumar Singh, Pawan Kumar of the six accused are to be hanged on February 1, 2020 at Delhi’s Tihar jail. Of the other two, Ram Singh reportedly committed suicide in prison, while the juvenile was sent to an observation home for three years, a decision Asha Devi and Badrinath fought hard against. Many media reports at the time claimed he was the most brutal of the lot, but the Juvenile Justice Board report denied any evidence of this in 2013. A native of Badaun in UP, the juvenile had come to Delhi seeking work, leaving behind a life of poverty, a mentally challenged father, and two sisters who worked as labourers. He is now a cook, working under a new name.
When the Patiala House Court announced the death sentence will be on January 7, Mukesh’s mother Ram Bai approached Asha Devi and told her: “Meri jholi mein mere bete ki jaan de do (I beg you to spare my son’s life)”. She was met with what Ram Bai calls “coldness” in her eyes. “She later told reporters that I want her son dead because he is poor,” says Asha Devi. “Her son raped my child, I feel no pity for him. Mujhe unko dekh kar ghrina aati hai (I feel disgusted when I look at them).”
The hanging, initially to take place on January 22, was deferred to February 1, after Mukesh filed a mercy petition before the president which was rejected. He then filed a plea in the Supreme Court, challenging the summary presidential rejection. The court rejected the plea, saying it was satisfied by the process. Akshay then filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court on January 29, which, if rejected, says his lawyer, A.P. Singh, could be followed by a mercy petition. Vinay and Pawan are yet to file any petition. Saying she is “tired”, each delay, Nirbhaya’s mother says, is another blow to her confidence in the legal system. “People like Indira Jaising are talking of human rights, asking me to have mercy. For years, I went to court, saw her there, did she ever ask me if I needed help? How can you support rapists? These are delay tactics by the defence,” says Asha Devi.
She has not given any thought to what she will do once her daughter’s rapists are hanged. There is speculation of her joining politics, but she dismisses it as rumour. “Jab Nirbhaya chali gayi, toh mere andar ki aurat bhi mit gayi aur ek ma khari ho gayi (The person I was died with my daughter, only the mother remained),” says Asha Devi. “I don’t know what I will do when this is over.”
Night Without End
It has taken seven years for Nirbhaya’s rapists to be brought to justice:
Dec. 16, 2012: Six men gangrape and brutalise physiotherapy graduate Nirbhaya and beat up her friend Awindra Pratap Pandey aboard a private bus from Munirka in Delhi
Dec. 18: CCTV footage and bus details lead police to the vehicle and accused Ram Singh, who leads them to Vinay Sharma and Pawan Gupta. Mukesh is apprehended from Karoli, Rajasthan. The juvenile is arrested from Delhi three days later and Akshay Kumar Singh is arrested in Bihar and brought to Delhi
Dec. 29: Nirbhaya dies at a Singapore hospital she had been shifted to two days earlier. Murder charges are added to the FIR
Jan. 4, 2013: The case is submitted in the lower court
Mar. 11: Ram Singh allegedly commits suicide in jail
Aug. 31: The Juvenile Justice Board sends the juvenile to a correction home for 3 years
Sept. 10: Session judge convicts Akshay Kumar Singh, Vinay Sharma, Mukesh, Pawan Gupta and sentences them to death
Mar. 13, 2014: Delhi High Court confirms death penalty, but the Supreme Court bench stays death sentence two days later following appeal by the convicts
Dec. 20, 2015: The juvenile is released from correction home
May 5, 2017: SC bench upholds Delhi HC decision to sentence the convicts to death
Nov. 9: Mukesh files a review petition in SC; Vinay Sharma and Pawan Gupta do the same on Dec. 15
Jul. 9, 2018: SC dismisses review petitions
Nov. 8, 2019: Vinay files mercy petition before President
Dec. 10: Akshay files review petition in apex court, which is rejected on Dec. 18
Dec. 19, 2019: Delhi HC dismisses Pawan Gupta’s plea claiming he was a juvenile during the rape
Jan. 7, 2020: Patiala House Court issues a death warrant against the four convicts; to be hanged till death on Jan. 22 at 7 am in Tihar Jail
Jan. 14: SC rejects Mukesh’s and Vinay’s curative petitions. Mukesh files mercy plea before the President
Jan. 17: President rejects Mukesh’s plea. The date and time of the hanging is decided as Feb. 1, 6 am, in Tihar. Mukesh files plea in SC against presidential rejection
Jan. 29: SC rejects Mukesh’s petition, saying it is satisfied by the process