They deserve the worst, says neighbour of brothers who led gang accused of rape and murder of 23-year-old student
Indian protesters demonstrate in New Delhi after the death of the student brutally gang-raped on a bus. Some of the placards say: 'New year will be for the freedom of women.' Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP
The sun slides away behind the dome of a medieval tomb and, as the shadows fall across the cluttered homes of Ravi Das colony, the temperature drops. Winter in Delhi is short but here, in this slum colony in the south of the city, the cold bites hard while it lasts.
The new year will bring little cheer. Most of the men work on the booming city's many construction sites. Others drive rickshaws, one of the Indian capital's most distinctive sights. The women sell vegetables or sew, earning enough to put a chicken in the pot a couple of times a month.
At around 11 o'clock on a Sunday night just over two weeks ago, Ram Singh, a 33-year-old school bus driver known as a troublesome drunkard, and his younger brother Mukesh headed back down the narrow lanes to the squalid one-bedroom brick home where they had spent the afternoon drinking. They cooked some dinner, argued briefly, according to neighbours who heard them, then all went quiet.
The people of Ravi Das colony, named after a 15th-century saint, had little warning that they were about to be at the centre of a news story that has led bulletins for two weeks in India and across much of the world.
That night, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student had been gang-raped on a bus in the capital. Nearly two weeks later, she died of her injuries in the Singapore hospital where she had been sent for treatment.
On Monday, the Indian government said compensation of £19,000 would be paid to the family of the still anonymous victim as dozens of high-profile new year celebrations were cancelled in Delhi and elsewhere.
The police came for the Singh brothers 36 hours after the attack. They also wanted two others, Pawan Gupta, a 19-year-old student who helped his parents out on their fruit stand, and Vinay Sharma, a cleaner in a local gym. The men, once arrested, reportedly confessed quickly. They had, it is alleged, gone out with two others in Ram Singh's unlicensed school bus on a “joyride”. Cruising Delhi's streets they had picked up a woman and her male friend.
As the bus continued along busy roads, they had battered the man into unconsciousness and repeatedly raped the woman, causing massive internal injuries with an iron rod, before dumping them near the city's airport.
The police have now finalised a 1,000-page charge sheet for the suspects' first court appearance, which is scheduled for Thursday.
The death of the victim on Friday night led to an outpouring of outrage, anger and, often, shame across India. “For what they have done, they deserve the worst,” said Ram Devi, a neighbour of the Singh brothers, on Monday.
In the often emotional debate in India over recent days many factors have been cited for the attack, only the most egregious among hundreds, if not thousands, of similar incidents that occur every year across the country. Poor policing, lax laws, embedded misogyny, even Bollywood film stereotypes have been blamed. Many have spoken of “monsters” or “beasts”. One newspaper described Ravi Das colony as “the den of the rapists”, “Delhi's underbelly” and “a fertile breeding ground for criminals”.
Ram and Mukesh Singh grew up in the colony, neighbours say. Their parents were from Karauli, a remote and lawless part of Rajasthan, the vast western Indian state which, despite the romantic facade it presents to millions of tourists, is one of the country's poorest. Back in the early 1990s, as India started slowly booming, the parents had come to Delhi to find work and squatted what was then derelict land. They had three children, all boys.
Like so many poor Indians, the family shuttled between their ancestral village and the city, where work and better educational facilities were to be found. Ram and Mukesh, unlike their parents, were literate. Both were in school until their mid-teens.
Mukesh, about 30, was quiet, nondescript, a follower, according to neighbours. “We had no trouble with him … But he'd do anything to impress his older brother,” said one teenage boy. It was Mukesh, a part-time taxi driver fired recently for indiscipline, who allegedly drove the bus during the assault.
However, Ram was a drinker and a brawler whom other men in the colony frequently had to keep in line. Asha, his sister-in-law, told the Guardian Ram had recently fought with her husband. Ram Singh's wife died three years ago and a complicated affair with a neighbour made for tension locally.
But Ram Singh did not harass local girls. “He knew what trouble he'd get if he tried it on with them,” said Asha. “This is a nice, clean neighbourhood with nice people living here,” said Ram Devi. “If there's a problem with someone or something we get together and sort it out.”
Out on the streets however, in the anonymity of a seething, overcrowded city, things were different.
Two other men allegedly involved also come from the colony. Pawan Gupta, a relative said, had grown up in a temple in the remote rural town of Basti in north-eastern Uttar Pradesh, again one of the poorest parts of India. He had given up further education to came to Delhi to help his parents run their fruit stall but, still only 20, was hoping to go to college. He had “fallen in with the wrong sort”, the relative explained. Vinay Sharma, the son of an airport cleaner, was doing a distance college course in communications while working at the gym.
The final pair accused in the case are an as yet unidentified 17-year-old and Aksay Kumar Thakur, a 26-year-old also from a remote, poor part of India, a village in the deep south of Bihar, an area known for brutal violence between castes, Maoist guerrillas and government forces, and against women. He and the teenager were recent arrivals in the city and had found work as helpers on Ram Singh's bus.
“They must have just got caught up in it. Or maybe being all together they went mad,” said Asha. “But we are very different people, good people.”
Certainly, Ravi Das colony is far from the pit of inequity and squalor portrayed by some local media. The narrow lanes are swept clean, the walls of the brick houses painted bright yellow, pink and blue. Plastic flowers decorate doors. There is, said one young woman proudly, drinking water twice a day, for an hour at a time.
Clusters of electricity wires cling to posts, bringing enough power for a weak lamp or two and televisions on which the people of the colony watched news reports of the rape and its aftermath.
As night gathers, the lanes are full of smoke from the wood-fired clay stoves cooking rice and lentils for dinner. Halfway between the seething city around it and the villages where almost all its inhabitants, including the alleged rapists, grew up, life may be tough and unpredictable in the colony but there is a chance of something better.
Next door to the Singh brothers, now facing a possible death sentence for murder, lives 18-year-old Pana Anuraji. A cobbler's daughter, she is studying fashion. “I'm going to be a famous dress designer,” she says brightly, as her mother stirs a smoke-blackened pot.