In southern Delhi, a slum lives in fear and uncertainty
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Raju Saini appears fidgety and nervous as he talks about his cousin. He speaks matter-of-factly, but there is a hint of caution in his voice, as if he is wary of what we might think about him and the place where he lives. Fifteen minutes into the conversation, he says what has been on his mind.
“We know what we are going through. Now even if people don’t say it out openly, they know we are from Ravidas camp, and eye us with suspicion whenever we go to work. This incident has given us a bad name,” said the 40-year-old man. Saini is tall and lanky with salt-and-pepper hair and a thin moustache, and was wearing grey thermals on the day we met in the slum.
Saini’s cousin is Ram Singh, probably the most hated man in the country. He is the main accused in the assault and rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in a moving bus in Delhi on Dec. 16. The woman died two weeks later after being moved to a hospital in Singapore. The assault, along with four other adults and a juvenile, shocked India and the world, and renewed public debate over the failure of authorities to stem violence against women.
Raju and his wife Asha live in a small one-room dwelling in a slum in the southern part of New Delhi. The slum, known as Ravidas camp, is where four of the six accused in the crime were living before being arrested. It is nestled between a derelict medieval tomb and a temple. Like many slums, dark, narrow lanes snake through shabby quarters, communal taps and open sewers. And like many slums in India’s cities, it squats amid a largely middle-class neighbourhood.
The neighbourhood, RK Puram, is dotted with shopping complexes and government-owned apartments for the many employees who run the national capital’s bureaucratic machinery. It is a well planned locality with wide streets and tree-lined boulevards.
Raju, Asha and many inhabitants of Ravidas camp speak in hushed tones about what it’s like living in a place made infamous by the blanket coverage that Indian and international media have devoted to the attack and its aftermath. It is apparent that their hitherto unnoticed existence on the fringes of India’s economic boom has been intruded upon, and thrust them unwillingly into the public eye, sometimes at a risk to their lives.
On Dec. 31, a man walked into the slum and threatened to blow up Ram Singh’s dwelling. Singh’s neighbours recall that the person claimed to be a soldier, and screamed at everyone to vacate the locality before he would lob crude bombs into Singh’s house.
“He screamed ‘Get out. I am going to destroy this house. I have orders from the government.’ That seemed strange to us as he was asking for directions to Ram Singh’s place. One of the children dialled 100 and called the police,” said one of Singh’s neighbours.
Inhabitants say there is heavy police presence outside the slum at night, and the police keep paying visits to speak to families of the accused as part of their investigations.
At the other end of the slum, some 50 yards from Singh’s dwelling, is a one-room house with a tin roof. This is where Vinay Sharma lived before the police picked him up. His three younger siblings and parents, along with a TV, an air cooler and all their other belongings, fit into a space the size of an average office cubicle.
His mother Champa Devi tries to hold back tears as she describes what she has gone through since Sharma was arrested. She did not know about the heinousness of the crime until she saw the reports on TV. She says she fainted and her husband has taken ill since their son was taken away.
“I have experienced things which I never thought I would. Every day the police and people from the media land up, asking the same questions,” she said, maintaining that if Sharma was guilty, he should be hanged.
When I spoke to Raju Saini, he asked me for a favour. “When you report, please take care not to say anything which might damage the situation even further. We are scared … Ever since that person threatened to blow up Ram Singh’s house, we have been scared.”
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