Over the last few months, India has witnessed two events that cannot be underplayed in the continued battle to rid the country of gruesome and heinous crimes against women. The shooting of self-confessed rapists in an encounter by the Hyderabad police after their horrific atrocity committed on a 27-year old veterinarian was the first. And the second - and perhaps biggest development in this regard - was the hanging of Nirbhaya's rapists in the wee hours of March 20.
Many believed that it would never come to pass. It had been 7 years since the rapists perpetrated among the most depraved acts fathomable. And it had been years since they had been convicted and sentenced to die. But still, even as the wheels of justice inched ahead, day by day, petition by petition and appeal by appeal, hope would often find a way of diminishing.
There were many who still clung on to it, however, even as one of the rapists escaped the hangman by dying in jail and another was deemed juvenile at the time of the act and allowed freedom. Nirbhaya's parents fought for their daughter, turning the pursuit of justice into the sole reason for their being. And so did her lawyer, Seema Kushwaha, who was by Asha Devi's side for every court appearance, during every hint of progress, and for every setback, often breaking down herself while telling the ever-present swarm of cameras that they would soldier on.
Speaking to Humans of Bombay, Seema Kushwaha has shared her own part in the struggle, reaching far back into her own origins and upbringing as a girl born into a regressively patriarchal society, recounting her memories of those fateful last weeks of 2012 where she was present among the shocked crowds that prayed in vain for Nirbhaya to defy the odds and somehow overcome her grievous injuries, to March 20, when her opposing counsel knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court at midnight in a desperate final attempt to stall justice.
“The night before the hanging, while India slept -- I was in court. After trying his luck in the lower courts, AP Singh woke up the Supreme Court at 12:00 am in a last ditch attempt to save the convicts. An emergency session had been called," Kushwaha said, going on to detail the last of the 'delay tactics' that AP Singh could muster. Till that point, and especially in the weeks leading up to the eventual hanging, these 'delay tactics' had appeared to take an almost suffocating quality, so much so that even the Home Ministry had moved the Supreme Court to challenge the fundamental loophole of the rapists' attempts to forestall fate.
Kushwaha described it thusly: "AP Singh tried everything to delay the final execution. He drowned me in petitions–every time I won a round, there were 10 others that hadn’t even begun. He had found his loophole–the convicts had to be hung together or not at all. He could’ve filed petitions for all 4 of them together, but he filed each one after the previous one had been dismissed, prolonging the trial & our agony. It was a vicious cycle."
That night, in the Supreme Court, he even cited the Coronavirus outbreak as one of the reasons why his clients shouldn't be hanged. "I watched as he scrambled in front of the judges. He tried using old arguments, made baseless accusations and even tried to use COVID-19 as an excuse to delay the execution," Kushwaha said, adding, however, that this time she didn't need to fight back.
"The court was tired of his antics and saw through them. Finally, at 3 in the morning, the judge said, ‘It’s time for your clients to meet with God and you need to accept that AP Singh!’," she recounts.
A few hours later, when at 5:30 am the rapists were finally hanged in Tihar Jail, she says she cried along with Nirbhaya's parents.
"We had finally won -- Nirbhaya’s soul could rest in peace. It’s strange... I’ve never even met her, but I felt attached to her as if she was my little sister. She could have grown up to do such amazing things for the world, had she survived," Kushwaha laments.
It was at the culmination of years worth of struggle against so many forces, from patriarchy and chauvinism, to inertia and the 'system', and to vile threats and abuse.
"We fought for over 7 years, but we still have a long way to go, because the mentality is still the same. After they were hung, I began receiving threats on my social media handles. They abused me and said things like, ‘We’ll rape you worse than Nirbhaya’". But Kushwaha is not daunted.
"I don’t care about those comments, but what pains me is that ever since, I’ve received over 500 messages from women -- some send me pictures of the FIRs they’ve filed to no avail and others tell me about how they’ve been raped, harassed or violated without any justice. I’m going to reach out to all of them to say, ‘Hum chodenge nahi unhe’. The fight has just begun," Seema Kushwaha declares.
(1/6) “I was born in a village called Uggarpur in UP. Until recently, if you googled it–it wouldn’t show up–that’s how remote it is. When my mom found out she was pregnant, she wanted to abort because they’d already had 3 daughters & 3 sons, but she couldn’t because we were a sufficient family. When she had me; a girl, everyone except my dad & bua was unhappy. The elders & my mom considered killing me–‘What will we do with one more girl?, they debated. But bua & papa intervened & I got a shot at life. Growing up, my brothers treated me like an unwanted child. Things got better eventually, but I always felt that us girls weren’t treated equally. But dad gave me the space to grow independently–that’s why at 5, I fought to go to school which was 1 km away from my village. We had to cross a jungle to get there, but somehow 7 of us girls managed until the 8th grade. After that, all the girls from my class dropped out–senior school was 3 kms away & no one from our village wanted to send their girls so far. ‘For what?’, they asked, ‘She’ll anyway get married soon–no point spending money & sending her so far.’ But, I was stubborn. By then dad had become the village Pradhan & I’d see city folk & MLAs visit with their educated kids. ‘Why not me?’ I asked. I’d also read books on Indira Gandhi & Rani of Jhansi & wanted to become like them. I told dad that my brother’s studies aren’t being stopped–then why mine? Finally, my teacher Mr. Jagdish Tripathi convinced my dad–that’s how I became the first girl from my village to study beyond the 8th grade. But dad was worried about my security, because it took me 3 hours each way. He soon realised he had nothing to worry about, because when a boy tried to pass cheap comments, I beat him black & blue. A crowd gathered & that guy began apologising, but I said, ‘Mein chodungi nahi tujhe!’ Word spread. These boys would say, ‘Bahut dangerous ladki hain, usse panga mat lena, woh seedhe maarne lagti hain’. My intolerance towards patriarchy started since then, but maybe it was in my destiny to go through all of this, so that one day I could fight the most important case of my life–to get justice for Jyoti Singh Pandey… Nirbhaya.”
(2/6) “I was so excited to study further that I didn’t care about much else–I put on my worn out slippers, carried my jhola, took my brother’s cycle & went to class. I took part in everything–I gave speeches & even got chosen to captain my NCC team in Lucknow–again everyone in my village opposed. ‘She’ll go to the city & ruin our name,’ they said–but my dad supported me. I took money from my brother & without telling anyone, left for Lucknow. There, we won the competition & my name came in the paper–a small article about a village girl leading her team to victory. After that, for sometime, I was left alone. But after my 10th, my family insisted on my marriage. I was so scared of my studies being stopped that I went on a hunger strike for 3 days! The ladke wallas heard about it, got scared of the ‘pagal ziddi ladki’ & didn’t show up to see me! I was desperate to study. To pay for my college fees, I sold my payal & earrings & began teaching at a school. Throughout, I refused to give up. Even in 2002, when my dad passed away & my eldest brother said, ‘Now no one will pamper you, you have to get married’, so my friend Rinky helped me get the LLB form & books. Finally, I left home. This has been my life–taking up jobs, sometimes walking to get to class, sacrificing food & sleep–just so that I could become a lawyer. But let me tell you, the status of women lawyers in Bombay or Delhi is different than those in smaller cities. In Kanpur, we were given no respect in courts–it was common for a woman lawyer to not get dates just because of her gender. So eventually, I moved to Delhi where I began preparing for my UPSC exams. I was staying in a PG, when it happened. 16th December, 2012, the day they gangraped her in a way no one could fathom. When we woke up to the news, there was fear & anger. 12 girls from my PG immediately left Delhi, because their parents were terrified. I was gutted. I cried uncontrollably thinking about her; about what she went through. When more details started pouring in, something in me moved. I wiped my tears. All my life, I’d fought for myself, but this wasn’t the time to sit at home & cry–it was the time to get out there & fight back.”
(3/6) “The whole country became aggressive. She went through torture that we can’t even imagine -- and we all felt the pain. At that point, had any of us seen the accused, we would have shred them to pieces -- such was our frame of mind. Where we were housed, there were around 50,000 youth in and around the area -- we decided to protest. On 22nd December, I was at the forefront of the protest at India Gate. I’d climbed a pole to tell the crowd that we needed to fight to get her treated out of the country. They sprayed water cannons on us; lathi charged us -- but we didn’t stop. I attended every protest from beginning until end. I can’t explain how I felt when we got the news that she had succumbed and lost her life. I felt so deeply connected to her that I organised a meet in her memory and invited her parents. After that, there’s rarely been a day that I haven’t spoken to aunty. I also followed the case like a hawk and attended every hearing, even though I wasn’t Jyoti’s counsel. I made sure I was present on 7th January when they filed the chargesheet in Saket court. There were a few lawyers there who wanted to take the case of the accused -- I appealed to them on moral grounds to not take it. I knew it was illogical; the accused had to go through due process -- but I was just so angry. That’s when AP Singh jumped in and took the case of the accused, while the state provided a lawyer to defend Jyoti. Over the next year, the convicts were sentenced to death in the District Court. Still, there was no execution. Months went by and aunty grew sadder with each passing day. To add to everything, when a journalist had questioned AP Singh on whether he would have taken the case, had Jyoti been his daughter -- he said, ‘If she was my daughter, I would have poured petrol on her and let her burn’. My blood was boiling. Finally, in May 2014, when I spoke to aunty and she said to me, ‘I don’t think my daughter will get justice’. That’s when I promised her– ‘I’ll fight for Jyoti; I’ll take the case -- hum chodenge nahi unhe.’”
(4/6) TRIGGER WARNING “I still remember the way I felt when I saw the convicts in the High Court. I was gut-wrenched -- images of their brutality & crimes haunted my mind. But they behaved as if nothing had happened; they joked with each other & even dared to smile at aunty -- they just didn’t care. I was filled with a rage like never before. As a woman, I wanted to beat them & make them pay with my own hands for what they did. But as a lawyer, I had to put a stone on my heart & keep calm. Through a flurry of cross-examinations, witness statements & DNA testing, I saw all 4 of them lie through their teeth. Vinay & Pawan said they were at a party that night; Akshay claimed he was out of town, and Mukesh said he was just driving the bus & didn’t rape her. The bite marks on Jyoti’s body matched Akshay’s teeth. The skin in her nails was theirs & samples of their sperm were found in her private area. I can’t put into words what I felt when they produced that rod in court. I felt like I’d faint, even imagining the pain that it would have caused her -- still, they lied & said they hadn’t seen the rod before. Their fingerprints were all over it. Even after the High Court passed the death sentence, AP Singh amped up his aggression to save the convicts. He verbally attacked judges in court, delayed the appeals to stop the case from moving forward & even insulted Jyoti’s character. I was shocked. I saw my opponent for what he was -- a prejudiced man who‘d stop at nothing. As much as his words triggered me, I knew I couldn’t flinch. I needed to understand his mindset to defeat him. So, I kept my composure no matter how much he tried to rile me up & fought with dignity. Still, justice was nowhere in sight & the matter wasn’t moving forward. As much as I tried to comfort uncle & aunty, they‘d lost hope. But I swore to them that as long as a death penalty was in the letter of the law, justice would be served. My fight wasn’t just for Jyoti anymore...it was for every girl in India. I was ready for anything that came my way. Even if that meant fighting my first ever case in the highest court of India – the Supreme Court.”
(5/6) “It was tough for me to even get a date in the Supreme Court–I desperately tried to get our matter heard, but in vain. The courts had a backlog of cases & I was even told that our case wouldn’t be heard before 2021–but how could this case be ignored? I made calls to advocates, aggressively pushed the registrar’s office & finally got a hearing after 1 full year. 2 years & 11 months after that; in 2017, the Supreme Court gave the same verdict–the convicts deserved to die. But AP Singh tried everything to delay the final execution. He drowned me in petitions–every time I won a round, there were 10 others that hadn’t even begun. He had found his loophole–the convicts had to be hung together or not at all. He could’ve filed petitions for all 4 of them together, but he filed each one after the previous one had been dismissed, prolonging the trial & our agony. It was a vicious cycle. Everyday they lived was another day of justice denied. It had been 6 years by then. Why were the courts being so lenient? Hadn’t they seen the rod that still gives me nightmares? Hadn’t they heard the nation’s outrage? Or had we normalised rape, no matter how brutal? Justice felt distant, but I found the strength every time I went to Jyoti’s room & saw a photo of her smiling. You know, after everything the only thing she told aunty in the hospital was that she wanted to live? That she wanted to see her torturers hang & become a doctor to help others? I kept looking at her photo & promised her I would make sure they hang–to prove that she did nothing wrong that night. That her being out at 8 pm with a male friend didn’t give them a right to rape her & take her life. I became relentless. I wrote to the President & PM, I questioned the delay in the media & fought in court like my life depended on it. It didn’t matter that it was my first case–for every ounce of experience that AP Singh had, I made up for it by not giving up. Finally, 7 years, 3 death warrants & countless delays later, our efforts paid off. Justice for Jyoti would be delivered on March 20th, 2020–the 4 of them were finally going to hang. But AP Singh hadn’t given up yet–he had another trick up his sleeve.”
(6/6) “The night before the hanging, while India slept -- I was in court. After trying his luck in the lower courts, AP Singh woke up the Supreme Court at 12:00 am in a last ditch attempt to save the convicts. An emergency session had been called. I watched as he scrambled in front of the judges. He tried using old arguments, made baseless accusations and even tried to use COVID-19 as an excuse to delay the execution. At that point, I didn’t even need to fight back; the court was tired of his antics and saw through them. Finally, at 3 in the morning, the judge said, ‘It’s time for your clients to meet with God and you need to accept that AP Singh!’ But he still couldn’t accept it. Outside the courtroom, he abused Jyoti in front of the media and blamed her for the suffering of the convict’s family. He asked, ‘Pawan’s mother is handicapped, Vinay has a young son–who will look after them?’ When a journalist asked him, ‘What about Jyoti’s mother?’, he said, ‘What about her? She didn’t even know where her own daughter was that night!’ We didn’t even bother responding– he had lost the war. At 5:30 am that same morning, as aunty, uncle and I watched the news of the hanging at Tihar jail, we hugged each other and cried. We had finally won -- Jyoti’s soul could rest in peace. It’s strange... I’ve never even met Jyoti, but I felt attached to her as if she was my little sister. She could have grown up to do such amazing things for the world, had she survived. We fought for over 7 years, but we still have a long way to go, because the mentality is still the same. After they were hung, I began receiving threats on my social media handles. They abused me and said things like, ‘We’ll rape you worse than Jyoti’. I don’t care about those comments, but what pains me is that ever since, I’ve received over 500 messages from women -- some send me pictures of the FIRs they’ve filed to no avail and others tell me about how they’ve been raped, harassed or violated without any justice. I’m going to reach out to all of them to say, ‘Hum chodenge nahi unhe’. The fight has just begun.”