The Mumbai Gang Rape: A Guilty Verdict and Lingering Questions

Mar 20, 2014 at 6:06 PM ET

More than a year ago, as protests flared over the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in Delhi, India’s parliament passed a stringent new law against sexual crimes.

In the past, only forced vaginal sex was considered rape. Blowjobs apparently didn’t count, nor did inserting an object into a woman’s vagina against her will. Stalking wasn’t a punishable offense, and if a woman died after she was raped, the man responsible for the sex crime faced little to no risk of the death penalty.

All of that has changed, and there’s now a fast-track judicial process for rape cases, too. It’s still unclear whether India is actually any safer for women. But the law—and the Indian justice system—appears to have passed another test at a time when the prosecution of sex crimes remains a hot-button issue in this nation of 1.2 billion people.

On Thursday, a Mumbai court found five men guilty of gang-raping a call-center operator and photojournalist last year on two separate days in an abandoned mill building in an upscale part of the city.

The court found three of the accused—Mohammed Kasim Sheikh, Vijay Jadhav and Salim Ansari—guilty of both rapes. Another, Siraj Rehman Khan, was convicted of raping the photojournalist, while a fifth man, Mohammed Ashwaq Skeikh, was convicted of raping the call-center operator. A sixth man, who is under 18 and being tried as a juvenile in a separate court, stands accused of raping the photographer.

On Friday, a judge sentenced four of the men to life in imprison for the rape of the telephone operator. The sentencing for the rape of the photojournalist will occur on March 24. Local reports said this is the first time a court in Mumbai has handed down a life sentence for rape.

In the case of the photographer, the men seemed to act without any fear of the law at a time when the Delhi gang rape was already roiling the country. The men used the phrase “the prey has arrived,” as a code to let their friends know to meet at the mill. And after the crime occurred, they told the woman not to tell anyone what happened and threatened her with a broken bottle.

The guilty verdict was a welcome one for women’s rights activists, but the issue of safety remains a complicated one in India.

Coming on the heels of a death penalty verdict for four men convicted in the Delhi rape case in September, many have argued that the public attention has empowered more young women to speak out against sex crimes.

Yet statistically speaking, it’s still unclear if the country is any safer for women, even in Delhi, which has long been considered a hotbed of sexual violence.