Tired, dark eyes are sunken in her weather-beaten face as Kushboo* stares at the dusty floor of her sparse two-room house in Badaun, a district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
She is covered in a dark blue shawl that has seen better days, and sits on a crude cot – the only piece of furniture in the room – wringing her hands.
Although she is relieved that her eldest son, one of six found guilty of the horrific rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a bus in New Delhi in 2012, is free after serving three years in a correctional institute in the capital, she is worried for his future – even though she refuses to believe that he committed the crime. ‘My heart cannot accept that he’s a criminal,’ she says, in chaste Hindi.
‘I truly believe his friends were a bad crowd… they trapped him. He may have been at the crime scene but he would never have done what they’re saying he did.’
Her son, who cannot be named for legal reasons, got a lighter sentence than the rest of the gang because he was a juvenile – just 17 years and six months old.
A change was made to the Indian law last month that now allows juveniles aged between 16 and 18 to be tried as adults for serious crimes like rape or murder.
Four of the gang – Mukesh Singh, Vinay Sharma, an assistant gym instructor; Pawan Gupta, a fruit seller; and Akshay Thakur, the bus cleaner – have appealed the death sentence handed down to them. Mukesh’s brother, the bus driver Ram Singh, was found dead in his cell in 2013.
The brutal attack on December 16, 2012, triggered international headlines and a national debate on the punishment accorded to those accused of rape, but Kushboo – who has five other children, the youngest who is just four years old – believes her son deserves a second chance. ‘I simply do not believe he did anything wrong,’ she says.
Upon his release on December 20 last year, her son, who is now 20, was placed in the care of a non-governmental organisation in Delhi. It will monitor him for a few months before handing him over to his mother in Uttar Pradesh, a five-hour drive from New Delhi. ‘I am waiting to meet him. I’ve not seen him in several years,’ she says.
Kushboo – whose husband Shamir* is said to be suffering from severe depression – sent her son away to live with his uncle in New Delhi when he was just eight years old to work and make money for the family back home.
‘We sent him away due to the poverty here,’ Kushboo says. Initially he worked in roadside restaurants and eateries washing cars and doing sundry jobs earning around Rs300 (Dh16) a month. According to his mother, he used to send part of the money home regularly. ‘But when he was here he was never naughty, he loved his siblings and shared a great bond with us, his parents, too. He’d always make tea for us. He didn’t have many friends but used to play with his siblings. He’d pray regularly and was a happy, calm boy – nothing would infuriate him.’
But inevitably after he went to live in Delhi, Kushboo claims she lost touch with her son. ‘I hardly saw him during his teenage years,’ she says. ‘He rarely came home; he just used to send us money. It’s been many years since I last saw him, I don’t even know if I’d recognise him now.’
The mother repeatedly blames ‘the bad company that he kept’ for his crimes.
‘I have no clue if he lived alone or with his friends during his teenage years. I didn’t even know his address in Delhi. I never visited him. But I can only assume he got in with a bad bunch of boys. The boys he made friends with sound bad and my boy would have been easily influenced, especially if he was the youngest of the group.’
Not much is known about the boy’s life after he left his village. Police have said that he did odd jobs at a Delhi bus station, cleaning buses, soliciting passengers and running errands for drivers.
It was there that he met bus driver Ram Singh. On the day of the attack, the teenager had gone to Ram’s house to claim some money Ram had borrowed from him. He then reportedly stayed back for a meal, before joining them on the bus to make some extra money on a Sunday.
Jyoti and her friend Avanindra Pandey, 29, were attacked after a night at the cinema. At around 9pm, as physiotherapy student Jyoti and Avanindra, a software engineer, were looking for a cab or autorickshaw to take them home, a bus with blacked-out windows stopped and a man masquerading as the conductor invited them aboard. Later, Jyoti would tell her parents and the police how five of them, including the juvenile, then dragged Jyoti to the back of the bus and took turns to rape her savagely. Some unconfirmed reports said the juvenile was the most horrific of all.
But Kushboo shakes her head. ‘It’s hard to believe that he can do anything [wrong],’ she says.
She says she is still haunted by the memory of the police visiting days after the incident, to tell them that their son had been arrested. ‘I’ve been ill ever since I heard the news,’ she says, adding that her 45-year-old husband is mentally ill with depression and can’t work. Their two daughters, who cannot be named for legal reasons, had to go to work on local farms to support their parents and three younger brothers.
‘My daughters work all day so that we can feed ourselves,’ she says. ‘They take work when it’s available and get paid Rs200 a day. But it’s not a reliable daily job – there is no security, we have no idea where our next meal is coming from.’
Kushboo believes her son has now served his time and he should be allowed to get on with his life.
‘He should be allowed home. He’s the only one who can earn money for the family and we need him.’
The ex-convict’s little sister, Reshmi*, 14, also wants her brother home.
‘Our life is hard,’ she says. ‘We’re just about able to feed ourselves with one meal a day. My mother has been bedridden ever since we were told my brother was arrested. Our family is in ruins.
‘I’m happy that my brother has been released. I want him home to look after us. His family needs him now. I’ve not been going to school because I had to work and earn money. I’d like to go to school again.’
Reshmi can’t remember her brother because he left home when she was very young, but she’s confident he was framed.
‘I don’t think my brother is a criminal. The boys in Delhi trapped him. He would never be so ruthless,’ she says.
Since his release last month, her brother hasn’t contacted his family. The man and his lawyer, Ajay Prakash Singh, have written to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs asking for police protection as they fear for his safety. He also expects the government to fund his attempts to set up a business. The Delhi government has said that it has formulated a rehabilitation plan for the ex-convict – he will be given a one-time financial grant of Rs10,000 and a sewing machine so that he can set up a tailor shop – a trade he apparently learnt while in the remand home. ‘The youth needs help to set up and run the business,’ a government official told media.
Kushboo is hopeful that her son will be able to sustain the family with the income from the business. ‘I hope he comes home soon. We need my son home. Even other members of the village are willing to accept him back home,’ she says.
However, not everyone in the village is keen to forget his past. Many of the village elders have made it clear that they are unhappy that he has brought disrepute to their village. The village headman and retired schoolteacher Nathu Master has warned that the ex-convict ‘dare not try anything with the women here [because] this is not Delhi. He will be lynched and his case will be decided right here’.
While a majority of the local villagers stood by the family during the case and have said they won’t stop him from returning to the village, they have vowed to keep a very strict watch on his movements. ‘We haven’t forgiven him,’ they have said.
Kushboo is thankful for their support. ‘They’ve all been very kind to us; they’ve all helped us both emotionally and financially. If our neighbours had been against us, we would not be alive today. We didn’t even have a proper house three years ago but the village pradhan (head of the village) helped us build a home – one where now she hopes to welcome her son back into the family.
‘Even if the entire nation hates my son and fights his release I want him home,’ she says. ‘Only he can better our situation. I don’t know what he did; I have no idea how brutal it was. But even if he admits all of the charges to me I will still forgive him. He is my child and I love him. Whatever he has done I am here for him.’
Kushboo believes Jyoti’s parents Asha and Badri Singh should be able to understand her willingness to forgive her son, ‘as any parent would’.
‘They should just think of my son as one of them and forgive him if at all he has done something. Whatever happened has happened. My son has been jailed. He should be forgiven now.’
However, that may not be easy. Asha and Badri Singh vociferously opposed his release on the grounds that he could be a threat to women anywhere in India. They, along with thousands of supporters, took to the streets in New Delhi last month to protest after the Supreme Court rejected their appeal to keep him detained.
‘No words can describe our disappointment,’ Badri said. ‘We don’t understand these laws. But we only know that the system has failed us.’ However, the ex-convict’s lawyer, AP Singh, believes his client is a changed man.
‘He wants to start a new life. He has siblings to take care of, as well as an ailing mother and a mentally ill father. He wants financial support from the government for his family who are living under very poor conditions. He’s thinking responsibly about his family, it shows he is thinking sensibly.’
The lawyer also believes the juvenile has been punished accordingly and justice has been served.
‘The girl has been given justice. Of course she has been given justice. Her family has been given financial help from all possible corners, from Indian NGOs to international organisations to Indian governments to social media platforms. Their lifestyle, everything has just changed,’ he said.
The youth’s family meanwhile, are waiting for his return. ‘I’ve waited for so many years for him to return. I’m waiting to see him, hold him and hug him. He’d not do any wrong. He cannot do it,’ says Kushboo.
*Names have been changed to protect identities