x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Delhi rape accused left behind by India’s boom

The juvenile accused of being involved in the gang rape and murder of a woman in Delhi had travelled to the capital to escape a life of rural poverty. 

NEW DELHI // In a village in India's Uttar Pradesh state, a woman sits hunched on the ground in a green shawl, weak and shivering in the January cold. She says she has not eaten for days, and neither have her five young children.

She has never heard of Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister and ekes out a living working in potato fields on other people's land.

Her eldest son left home when he was 11. He never returned, and the woman thought he was dead. The first news she got of him was when New Delhi police turned up at her brick hut to say he had been arrested for the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old student.

The mother of the juvenile, the youngest of six members of the gang accused of committing the crime on a moving bus, recalled the son who left home five or six years ago, and seemed stunned by the accusation against him.

"Today, the infamy he earned is eating me up," his mother said. She said she had become an outsider in the village "because of the shame that my son has brought to the family".

The five men who have been charged with rape and murder are expected to plead not guilty. The sixth member of the gang, the woman's son, is being processed as a juvenile. He has not been charged and will be tried separately.

Police have said they are conducting bone tests to determine his age as they suspect he may be older than 18.

It is from a life of rural penury that the youth sought to escape, one of about two million Indians who migrate to cities every year.

Conversations with relatives, neighbours and police show the extent to which the accused lived on the margins of the capital's emerging prosperity.

Their lives stand in contrast with that of the victim.

She was also from a humble background but funded her studies by taking a job in one of the call centres that are a hallmark of modern India's economy.

According to his mother, the youth went to Delhi, found work in a roadside eatery and - for the first year - used to send 600 rupees (Dh40) a month back to his family.

After he stopped sending money, his mother never heard from him again. A couple of months before the rape, she consulted a Hindu holy man about her son who said

"someone has practised some black magic on him", she said.

The details of the boy's life after he left his village are patchy. Even his fellow accused did not know his real name. Police described him as a "freelancer" at a Delhi bus station, cleaning buses and running errands for drivers.

It was during this time that he met Ram Singh, the main accused in the case.

The friend of the rape victim who had accompanied her on the bus, and who was also beaten, said the juvenile had beckoned the pair to board.

"He had a light moustache ... and a very sweet demeanour," he said. But the juvenile "was one of the first to attack me", he added.

Singh and three of the other accused lived in a poor pocket in the largely middle-class Delhi neighbourhood of RK Puram.

Many of the people who live there are migrants, working as electricians, autorickshaw drivers, day labourers, mechanics and street vendors.

Singh was a bus driver who was a heavy drinker with a temper, said his neighbours.

India's rapid growth over the past two decades, kick-started by a period of free-market economic reforms, accelerated the process of urbanisation.

The world of the juvenile's mother is still one of carts drawn by horses.

But in the cities, the old barriers of caste and gender are being eroded as India prospers. It is in this world that Vinay Sharma, another of the accused, wanted to make his mark.

Passionate about boxing and bodybuilding, Sharma earned 3,000 rupees a month as a helper in a gym and wanted to enrol on a correspondence course.

"He always used to say 'I will make it big in life'," said his mother, Champa Devi.

Like the juvenile and the victim, Sharma's family is from Uttar Pradesh, a state of 200 million people where poverty is entrenched.

"When the police came around 4 or 4.30 in the evening, he was at home," his mother said.

"I ran after him when they were taking him away. They would not even tell me why. Even he kept insisting 'Ma, go back home, nothing will happen to me. They are just taking me to ask some questions. I will be back soon.'"

Reuters