On a cold and contentious January evening in Delhi, Indian film actor Deepika Padukone appeared at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to stand in solidarity with students protesting a brutal attack by an iron-rod wielding mob two days ago. On the same day, four convicts found guilty of raping, murdering, and torturing a young woman with an iron rod in 2012 were issued their death warrant. As the news was delivered in court, the victim’s mother wept in memory of a young life lost. The four convicted men also cried and perhaps felt regret as details were revealed about a hangman from Meerut and a scaffolding which will now be increased to accommodate the hanging of not three but four men.
On this day, one could not but mourn a world where capital punishment is still a reality and even celebrated as “true justice” despite the argument that death penalty is state violence against the very violence it condemns. If justice was indeed served or gang violence deterred by this judgment, it was not apparent on this particular day. Bloody images of injured student leader Aishe Ghosh, attacked by a group armed with iron rods were juxtaposed with news that two FIRs had been lodged against her—the victim. No individual from the mob of attackers was charged.
On the same evening, social media was full of images of an Indian reality television show where an angry male contestant violently attacked a woman participant on camera, while other contestants watched and an Indian audience of millions watched at home. The channel edited this episode, approved it, and decided to air it, without taking any legal action against the man. It is no wonder then that every single day—and on this day —seventy-two women in India were raped.
One such attack was the recent gang rape and murder of a Hyderabad-based vet. Shortly after the young woman’s death, the accused were also killed in a police encounter. Hers was the tragic end of a young life and their deaths deprived them of their right to due process—for all, justice was denied. On this same day, Uttar Pradesh-based actress Sadaf Jafar, who was arrested for protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act, was released from a Lucknow prison. She revealed that she had been abused, beaten, and kicked in the stomach by male police. On this evening, the debate over Deepika Padukone’s celebrity intentions threw up research about how almost every day, one Indian woman is a victim of an acid attack. Acid attacks are known to be committed primarily by males, often fueled by rage and a need for revenge. Research reveals that fifty-five percent of acid attacks target women who reject marriage proposals.
Each separate but interconnected piece of news made it a day to engage with the horrifying truth that large groups of youth are caught up in vicious cycles of rage, fear, revenge and violence, living on the edge—crossing from being victims to perpetrators when opportunities arise. Unable to access justice, rights, or support in more constructive ways, these are young people ripe for political use, primed and prepped to participate in vigilante acts of mob violence. Never before has it felt more urgent to listen to young people, to talk to youth, to have them think about breaking cycles that have robbed them of their own freedoms or built up such appetite for aggressive revenge. It is urgent to engage youth, to challenge them to find alternate ways to express themselves or resolve conflict. Never before has it seemed more crucial to have youth icons model new ways to assert power or advocate for themselves.
And at the end of this long and difficult day, when thirty-four-year-old Deepika Padukone showed up full of grace when she shone her starlight on students who are feeling brutalized and targeted when she stood with another brave woman when she silently challenged those who used vandalism and violence—it was not only a test of courage but also a deeply non-violent show of strength. Her gesture is bound to inspire young people in every corner of this country and that, for me, is how she managed to save an otherwise hopeless day.
Suparna Gupta, an Ashoka fellow and an Edward S. Mason fellow from Harvard Kennedy School, is the founder of Aangan, a nonprofit that works to keep children and adolescents safe from violence, exploitation, and abuse.