A New York Vigil for Jyoti Singh Pandey

01 Feb

Photo by Athanasia Kotopoulos.

Shine Jyoti – A time for Remembrance & Action

By Lavina Melwani

They gathered on January 15 in the dark, in the biting winter cold in Union Square, Manhattan’s instinctive gathering place for protests and vigils, for remembrance and for times of loss. Encircled by towering buildings and rushing, frenzied traffic, they had come together, carrying lighted votives which glittered in the dark of the disappearing day.

It was appropriate that they had gathered here for though Jyoti Singh Pandey’s story may have taken place in a street in Delhi, it has gone on to become a global catalyst, not just for women but for men of good will, for all human beings.  Looking at the somber faces, not only Indian but of every race, one realized that sexual violence is something everyone has to contend with.  I could even imagine Jyoti Singh Pandey, huddled in a coat with a votive in her hand, standing in solidarity with the crowd.

She was us and we were her.

The ‘Shine Jyoti’ vigil had been organized by the nonprofit group Sakhi for South Asian Women which works with victims of domestic violence,  in conjunction with a host of women’s and community organizations. There were men, women, elderly and the young, babies in strollers. There were hand-made banners which told of the concerns, of the way sexual violence had infiltrated communities: ‘Jyoti, Your Light Shines Through the Darkness. Shine in Power”;”From Delhi to Ohio and Beyond: If you are not fighting rape, you are saying it’s OK”; “Silence hides Violence”; “Speak Even if Your Voice Shakes”; and just simply ‘Respect’.

Photo by Juhi Desai

Many voices were heard on the makeshift stage that night, men and women from different organizations expressing their grief and shock and what needs to be done in the future. “The violence and the painful details have been haunting us all,” said Sethu Nair, outreach advocate with Sakhi.  ”We feel anger, outrage, sadness, intolerance and perhaps what brings us all together  today is a feeling of solidarity, a knowing within us that it is time to come together and do something.  But above everything, what is outrageous and unacceptable to me is the silence. All of this awareness this case has brought forth has done little to truly address the silence that surrounds gender-based violence. And that silence is right here among us.”

She added, “It is quietly among us in the way we never truly acknowledge that rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, family violence, incest is not something that happens out there,  to other people, far from here.  Today, this gathering here is not only about Jyoti and India. Today is about us coming together to acknowledge that violence and abuse, that dynamic of power and control through that traps our own lives and spirits. It is right here, among us! It happens in the South Asian community right here in New York City.  It happens in all communities everywhere in the world.”

This solidarity vigil was also a catalyst for more action in the future. Sanjay Patil, a member of Association for India’s Development (AID-NY), announced a panel discussion by SABANY and AID-NY on February 6 to discuss the reformation of India’s criminal laws and justice system to protect women’s constitutional rights. For more information on participating, check

Many Voices,  A Shared Pain

I talked to Purvi Shah, a consultant on violence against women, who is also a poet and author of ‘Terrain Tracks’ ( She pointed out,  ”Sexual violence affects all our communities and each of us. As a result, each of us needs to be part of the solution. Ultimately, we are working towards a world where we can show healthy desires, starting with behavior that respects everyone’s body, integrity, and right to be fully human.”

Indeed, sexual violence can come in many forms, from spousal violence to ‘eve teasing’ to molestation and rape. Many community activists from different spheres of society spoke, proving that violence is the common denominator in so many relationships.

“We are here today to say that we all must work together to remove the stigma about talking about sexual violence, and to change our culture.  No one has the right to take someone else’s sexual consent, or control over their own body,” said Chai Jindasurat,  Coordinator at the New York City Anti-Violence Project , a national coalition which works within the  lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected (LGBTQH) communities.

As he pointed out, this is another community which is often silenced and minimized, as not too many people recognize that sexual violence is something that even LGBTQ people face. “There are many myths about LGBTQ sexual violence, including the myth that men cannot be raped, the myth that women cannot perpetrate sexual violence, the myth that LGBTQ people are sexually deviant.”

Photo by Juhi Desai

The Sorrow of the Dhol, and a Poem…

As the vigil neared its end, Sonny Singh Brooklynwala brought out his dhol which usually brings such joy and vibrant energy with bhangra beats. Today it hammered out a sad, sombre tap which pervaded the air and made one focus, almost meditate, like a prayer. Then Purvi Shah, poet and activist, shattered the night with a powerful poem dedicated to Jyoti Singh Pandey and all the women lost to violence.

Here’s an excerpt:

To shine a light
for Jyoti and all the victims & survivors of sexual violence and for our future
Your eyes held so much wonder, marveling
at this movie – Life of Pi – this film that would be your last. Your brothers
miss your sparkle. Your parents, holding you now as flame.
Many names you have been called – treasure,
lightning, India’s daughter, anonymous. And even
your own: Jyoti, the light.
In your shadowed radiance, we raise
a lamp, lead darkness
into flame, death into survival.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.


There’s a lot of talk these days about India’s rape culture.
How it’s the most dangerous place to be born a girl. True.
Yet, let’s take this moment to shift lights: here,
in the U.S., 1 in 6 women is raped. Every 2
minutes, a sexual assault. A priest with hands
too near, a football coach groping, a partner forceful.
Seems like we have a legitimate problem as well.
Yet, how we throw stones, make a false distance. So we need
to pick up a candle in our own
neighborhoods, dorm rooms, lockers, homes.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.


A woman is not a metaphor.
She is skin and bones.
In fact, she is more – she is the courage of a baby bird about to fly.
She is the heart of a friend holding your hand at a hospital.
She is a soul watching a galaxy spinning around her.
These aren’t metaphors but incidences of light, the way hope, desire, dreaming, is as real
as light on your face in the mornings, as real
as the men & women facing
water cannons, tear gas on Delhi streets.
You just have to believe it to see it. You just have to see it to believe it.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.


Her name is Jyoti Singh Pandey.
Let us say, when we leave here tonight, Jyoti,
you may have lit
a spark in Delhi but you have
ignited a blaze across our world.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.
Go then, shine.


Lavina Melwani is an award-winning journalist who has written for several international publications including: India Today, Newsday, The Week, WSJ, Travel Plus and The Hindu. She lives in New York. Her online magazine, Lassi with Lavina, is about Indian art and culture. Click here to visit her website, Lassi with Lavina.


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