The body of a woman who died after being gang-raped and beaten on a bus in India’s capital has been cremated amid an outpouring of anger and grief by millions across the country demanding greater protection for women from sexual violence.
The young woman’s body was cremated in a private ceremony on Sunday soon after its arrival on a special Air India flight from Singapore, where she died at a hospital on Saturday after being sent for medical treatment.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party, were at the airport to receive the body and meet family members of the victim who had also arrived on the flight early on Sunday.
Hours after the victim died on Saturday, Indian police charged six men who had been arrested in connection with the attack with murder, adding to accusations that they beat and gang-raped the woman on a New Delhi bus on December 16.
The victim, who has not been identified, was taken to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth hospital, which specialises in multi-organ transplants, in extremely critical condition, and her condition took a turn for the worse, with her vital signs deteriorating.
Anger and grief
After her death, thousands of mourning Indians lit candles, held prayer meetings and marched through various cities and towns, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata, on Saturday night to express their grief.
The mourners demanded stronger protection for women and the death penalty for rape, which is now punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment.
Women face daily harassment across India, ranging from catcalls on the streets, groping and touching in public transport to rape.
New Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said the six suspects face the death penalty if convicted, in a case that has triggered protests across India and raised questions about lax attitudes by police toward sexual crimes.
The tragedy has forced India to confront the reality that sexually assaulted women are often blamed for the crime, forcing them to keep quiet and discouraging them from reporting it to authorities for fear of exposing their families to ridicule.
Police often refuse to accept complaints from those who are courageous enough to report the rapes, and the rare prosecutions that reach courts drag on for years.
Al Jazeera’s Divya Gopalan, reporting from New Delhi, said many people were gathering on Sunday “in solidarity and to express their sorrow and disappointment at the way women are being treated across the country”.
“In Delhi alone there have been 600 rape cases this year from January, and only one conviction. So that gives you an idea of how the whole system is not geared to deal with this problem,” our correspondent said.
“The government has been appeasing people, saying; yes we’re setting up a panel; we’re looking at new laws and regulations, but at the heart of the issue is the whole mindset that is wrong.”
Prime Minister Singh said on Saturday that he was aware of the emotions the attack has stirred, adding that it was up to all Indians to ensure that the young woman’s death will not have been in vain.
The woman and a male friend, who also has not been identified, were on a bus in New Delhi after watching a film on the evening of December 16 when they were attacked by six men who raped her.
The men beat the couple and inserted an iron rod into the woman’s body, resulting in severe organ damage. Both were then stripped and thrown off the bus, according to police.
The couple was planning to get married next year, neighbours of the boyfriend told local media on Sunday.
Gandhi, the governing party chief, assured the protesters in a statement that the rape victim’s death “deepens our determination to battle the pervasive, the shameful social attitudes and mindset that allow men to rape and molest women and girls with such an impunity”.
A statement issued by United Nations spokesman Martin Nesirky said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “offers his sincerest condolences” to the victim’s family and “utterly condemns this brutal crime”.
“Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated,” the statement said. “Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected.”
Ban urged the Indian government to take steps to deter such crimes and bring perpetrators to justice, and to “strengthen critical services for rape victims,” the statement said.