Awindra Pratap Pandey looks down while caressing the thin gold ring that sits snugly on the second finger of his left hand. “I like wearing it,” says the 28-year-old bespectacled software engineer. “Sometimes, it reminds me of the good things that have happened… before that horrifying night.”
It’s a ring he gave his friend Jyoti Singh a few months after they first met. But she returned it to him just days before they boarded a bus in Delhi, saying he should wear it for a while and she would take it from him later. “She didn’t give me a reason and I did not think too much about it,” says Awindra. “But I never got to return it to her.”
He bites his lower lip, trying hard to control his emotions as he talks about the night – Sunday, December 16, 2012 – when Jyoti, 23, was raped on a moving bus in India’s capital, New Delhi, before the two were thrown naked and bleeding on to the road and left to die. She battled her horrific injuries for 13 days but eventually died, saying she hoped her attackers burned to death.
Although it was not the first time such a heinous crime had been committed in the country, Jyoti’s case made international headlines because of the sheer brutality and the groundswell of public ire that followed in its aftermath. To Awindra, it’s an incident he will never be able to forget.
“I wish I could have saved her that day,” he says. “I tried my best, but the men overpowered me and attacked me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”
The pair had met two years before through a mutual friend in Delhi. On the fateful day Jyoti gave him a call at around 1.30pm and asked him if he had any plans. “She was full of life and enjoyed window-shopping and watching movies,” he says.
They decided to meet at Saket Citywalk. The 160cm tall Jyoti, dressed in a brown and black woollen pullover and jeans, suggested watching Life of Pi. “She liked it very much,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, earlier that day, about 25km away from Dwarka in a slum called Ravidas colony in South Delhi, Ram Singh, a school bus driver, and his younger brother Mukesh were planning to liven up their Sunday.
Together with two friends who worked on and off as assistants on the bus – 17-year-old Raju (name changed for legal reasons) and 28-year-old Akshay Thakur – they began drinking in the evening. At around 8pm, Ram and his friends got into the bus and set off. “Let’s go and have some fun,’’ he reportedly told his friends. On the way they picked up two more friends – Pawan Gupta, 19, a fruit seller, and Vinay Sharma, 20, a cleaner and gym instructor – and headed off to the city.
Spotting the couple, they stopped the bus and lured them in, saying it was headed to Dwarka, their destination.
However, once on the bus, the six men, four of whom pretended to be passengers, attacked Awindra and Jyoti before dragging her to the rear of the bus and taking turns to rape her for more than 45 minutes.
Eventually the men snatched all the duo’s belongings, disrobed them, dragged Jyoti by her hair and threw them off the bus. It was much later that a passerby found the naked and bleeding couple and informed the police, who reportedly wasted precious minutes debating which jurisdiction the case would fall under before finally taking them to a government hospital in Delhi. Joyti died from her injuries on December 29.
Angry protests erupted all over Delhi, which quickly spread across the country. Students, women’s organisations and civil rights groups launched all-night vigils, sit-ins and demonstrations.
Riots and violent protests also broke out in some parts of the country with the public demanding that the accused be tried and convicted speedily.
In keeping with the sensitivity of the case and local laws, the name of the victim was not revealed until recently but the media began referring to her as Braveheart.
Last September, four of the accused – Mukesh, Vinay, Akshay and Pawan – were found guilty and sentenced to death. Another suspect, Ram Singh, was found dead in his cell in March. The teenager who was found guilty of taking part in the rape was sentenced to three years in a reform facility, the maximum term possible because the crime was committed when he was 17.
But a year-and-a-half since the tragedy, the wounds are still fresh in Awindra’s mind. “They did try several times to take this ring from my finger, but couldn’t because it was too tight,” he says. “But they took away everything else we had – our clothes, jewellery, watches... It’s tough but I am slowly trying to get back to a normal life although I’ve lost the meaning of the word normal,” he says. It took around two months for him to recover from his physical injuries. “But I don’t think mentally I’ll ever get over it,” he sighs.
It’s clear that the horrific crime has changed Awindra’s life for ever.
“I used to get irritated by trivial things; I was quite a short-tempered person but those who know me say I’ve changed a lot. I’m no longer the person I was. Nothing can ever upset me more than what happened that night.’’
Awindra says he’s constantly haunted by the nightmare he experienced on the bus. “The images of the incidents in the bus keep recurring in my mind.”
He is coping by building his charity – Jagriti – to help women in need. “We must change society; that is fair justice. We have to stop these types of men from walking our streets.
“We have to help people in distress, we can’t turn our backs on women who are subjected to such terrors by men. We all have a part to play.’’
Awindra, the son of a lawyer and brought up in a middle-class Indian family in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, first met Jyoti through mutual friends in Delhi where he was working as a software engineer, in May 2010. “She was learning to be a physical therapist in Dehradun and had returned to her home in Delhi for her holidays.”
As they chatted over studies and future dreams they quickly bonded and exchanged mobile numbers.
“She was a caring and ambitious girl,’’ he says. “I’m sure, if she had survived the attack she would have gone on to lead an exceptional life, she was just that kind of girl. We used to chat about everything. She was very intelligent and she had an opinion on most things.
“We used to have really engaging conversations about almost any subject under the sun.
“She was excited about her future and wanted to go abroad to study. She had a passion for serving the poor and needy and she used to actively participate in medical camps. She wanted to do good in her life.’’
As much as Awindra’s friendship with Jyoti went from strength to strength, they had never spoken about marriage. “We had never thought about marriage but we were the best of friends and I had a lot of respect for her.
“I admired her as a woman and achieving what she had even though her family had no money. She was full of life. She had a very positive outlook and she had faith in life, it was a very endearing quality. She never moaned and never had regrets about anything.”
Awindra and Jyoti spoke every week over the phone, and tried to meet whenever possible in Delhi.
But going to the cinema together was their favourite hobby.
“We used to always go the cinema if we were in Delhi. We loved films,’’ he said. On that fateful day the two watched the 6.30pm screening of A Life of Pi at Saket Mall, in South Delhi, and afterwards managed to catch an autorickshaw to take them home from outside the shopping mall. But the driver refused to travel the full distance to their home and dropped them off in the middle of nowhere.
“We were really angry with that driver because he chucked us out before we reached home,’’ Awindra remembers. “We tried to find another auto but because our destination was far, no driver was interested.’’
Eventually, at around 9.15pm, a white bus with blacked-out windows stopped right next to them on the road. Teenaged Raju, jumped off and asked the couple where they were going.
“I’ll never forget his words,’’ Awindra says. “When we said our destination, he said in Hindi: ‘Sister, we’re going to that area,’ and we just jumped on.
“Those kind of buses are very common. I’d used them before, we didn’t think anything strange, didn’t even hesitate and we bought two tickets for 10 rupees each as soon as we got on. We took a seat, they switched off the lights and we moved on,’’ Awindra remembers.
Within four minutes of the lights going out, Ram Singh was the first to approach Awindra and began making lewd comments about Jyoti. When he told them to stop, they began to slap him. One of them began to attack Jyoti.
“I managed to hit them a few times and tried to stop them,” says Awindra. But one of the men fetched a metal rod from the rear of the bus and began hitting him with it. “I could hear Jyoti cry ‘Help, help, help!’ but I couldn’t do anything because they started to hit me on the head and on my legs and arms,” says Awindra. A blow to his head immobilised Awindra and he fell on the floor of the bus.
“That’s when they took her to the back of the bus. I could hear her cries. My eyes were open, I could hear everything, but my body was paralysed. I couldn’t move.”
As Awindra lay unable to move on the floor, he heard the men say Jyoti was dead. They then turned back to him and tried to finish him off with the rod, blow after blow. The attack went on for 45 minutes.
“I could hear the cars, people on the streets going about their evenings as we passed. I was desperate to call out for help, for someone to save us. If only they could have heard us. I still can’t bear to think about that night, it terrifies me over and over again.’’
Eventually, the bus driver stopped and they threw the couple out on to the road, naked, bloodied and seriously injured. The group didn’t care if they were alive or dead.
Awindra remembers them unsuccessfully trying to run over them both with the bus, before speeding off.
“For 20 minutes we were on the road, naked, screaming and begging for help but no one came,” he says. “Cars, autos and bikes slowed down, took a look and sped away. I kept waving for help. The ones that did stop just stared at us before driving off again. Nobody did anything, people ignored us as if they didn’t see anything.’’ Eventually someone did call the police. But by this time Jyoti was bleeding badly.
“The police took about 20 minutes to arrive and when they did, they wasted time arguing and deciding the station jurisdiction of the crime,” Awindra says.
“There was no ambulance; I had to carry my friend into the police van. At first the police took us to Delhi’s AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) Hospital and then to Safdarjung Hospital. So much time was wasted and all the while we were both in so much pain. Even at the hospital there were no doctors and as I waited shocked, nobody provided me with a cloth to cover myself.
“I was lying in the corridor naked and in pain. I remember sitting on the floor a very long time.’’
Awindra closes his eyes tight as though trying to squeeze the terrible thoughts and images out of his mind.
“I cannot forget even one second of that night,” he says. “Sometimes I am terrified of closing my eyes because I am scared I will be haunted by the memories of the horrendous night.
“Every single moment was traumatic. But without doubt, without any hesitation, the time when my friend was calling me for help on the bus and I couldn’t get to her or help is the worst. I was completely helpless to go and save her and it tortures me every day.
“If only she received better care sooner, she would have survived,” he keeps repeating. “She was brave. She wanted to live.”
Awindra still finds it difficult to sleep. “I keep dreaming that it is happening again and again. I keep hearing her cry out for help.” His injuries, too, were horrific. He had a fractured right leg and couldn’t move his arms for a month as well as not being able to sit or walk for long because of injuries to his back.
Jyoti remained in hospital in Delhi for 10 days before she was transferred to Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore, for further treatment. Awindra managed to see her on December 20 while she was in intensive care in Delhi.
“As soon as she saw me she moved her hands to gesture me closer,” he recalls. “She was pleased when I told her the culprits had been caught. But she kept trying to say that we shouldn’t have boarded the bus. She was in pain, but she was certain to let it be known she wanted the men burnt alive.’’
When Jyoti died of her injuries in Singapore, her death made global news and highlighted even further the rape crisis in India. Violent protests that were continuing unabated in India flared up on Delhi streets with women of all ages taking to the streets to show their rage.
Awindra says he tried to stay away from anything that reminded him of the devastation immediately after her death.
“It was plastered all over the newspapers and TV and the streets were full. I felt I had to change my accommodation and I left my job soon after. My parents wanted to me to move back to the family home but I refused; that would have been an injustice to the cause. It was hard but I wanted to stay in Delhi and fight. I don’t know where my strength came from but I decided not to break. I was determined to seek justice.’’
Awindra had to identify the men soon after the incident. The memory still angers him. “I was so angry when I saw them; I recognised each and every one of them. I wanted to kill them there and then. I faced them in court too.
“They have been unrepentant throughout. There is no chance of reforming them. They deserve the death sentence. They are as arrogant and brutal as they were that night.”
Now, Awindra cannot forgive everyone who let him and Jyoti down that night. “Not a single hour has passed since that unfortunate day when I don’t remember Jyoti. She is always on my mind. Anniversaries don’t mean anything. Every morning I get up and I remember her, so I can say that every day is an anniversary. What happened that dreadful night was not the failure of the system but society as a whole – the autorickshaw drivers who refused to take us home, the people who saw us on the road naked but didn’t help, the police who argued with each other while we lay in pain, the hospital staff who ignored me and then, of course, the six men who committed the crime.
“Everyone was to blame to a certain degree that night. I never thought people could be so brutal.
“There are no words to describe what those men did to us. Actually, the word brutal is too weak a word. It still haunts me to this day.
“My upbringing was very normal and I was told to be good to everyone and never harm others. But I have stopped trusting people now. I’ve become very suspicious. The memory of that night will now shape my future.’’
Awindra has ploughed all his grief into working on a women’s charity. Jagriti provides free health check-ups for women, workshops in the villages where both men and women are taught women’s rights. There is also a call centre for women in distress or the victims of violence and abuse.
Awindra adds, “Only when you experience pain yourself can you feel other people’s pain. That’s what has happened to me. Now I know how important this charity work is for the future of women. After going through this awful experience myself, I know how important it is to help people in distress. When I help other people in distress, I can forget what we have been through for just a minute. It has helped me move forward in life.’’
Awindra has about 60 volunteers helping him with the charity, which is based in his home state. They are helping tens of women every day.
“Most of my volunteers are men,” he says. “We’re good men, and we show there are good men too in India. We want a better country for ourselves, for our society to improve, and we want our mothers, sisters and daughters to feel safer. I couldn’t help Jyoti that night, but helping these women in any way possible makes me feel I am not completely useless. I can help after all.
“My friend’s death has served as no lesson to anyone in power. Even now I face difficulties hiring an auto and if you complain to the police they pass you on to the next department. Nothing has changed and I doubt anything will.
“Tragically, rape affects the honour of a family and the girl in India. If one is murdered that is acceptable but a rape survivor is not accepted. And this has to change; we have to bring about radical changes in Indian society.
“Jyoti was such a gentle soul and I miss her every day. The best and only tribute to her now is to ensure that no one suffers like her again in India and to make every effort to stamp out rape.’’