NEW DELHI – A young woman who died after being gang-raped and beaten on a bus in India’s capital was cremated privately as millions of grieving, angry residents demanded greater protection for women from sexual violence.
The cremation took place during a private ceremony in New Delhi soon after the woman’s body arrived in the capital Sunday on a special Air India flight from Singapore, where she died at a hospital Saturday after being sent for medical treatment.
The attack has forced India to confront the reality that sexually assaulted women are often blamed for the crime, forced to keep quiet and discouraged from going to authorities for fear of exposing their families to ridicule. Police often refuse to accept complaints from rape victims, and the rare prosecutions that reach courts can drag on for years.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party, were at the airport to receive the woman’s body and meet family members of the victim who were on the flight. Security was tight, with no access to the public or media at the crematorium.
Six men have been arrested and charged with murder in the attack on a New Delhi bus on Dec. 16. Police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said they face the death penalty if convicted.
The woman, who has not been identified, was first treated at a New Delhi hospital before being moved to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth hospital, which specializes in multi-organ transplants. The attackers inserted an iron rod into the woman’s body, severely damaging her organs.
Following her death, thousands of Indians lit candles, held prayer meetings and marched through cities and towns Saturday night to express their grief and demand stronger protection for women and the death penalty for rape, which is now punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment.
But in a sign of how pervasive such crimes are, police in West Bengal state were investigating another suspected gang-rape and death.
The family of a woman said she and her husband were attacked by six men as they returned home after working at a brick factory. They dragged the woman into a nearby farm after pouring acid into her husband’s mouth, the family said.
The woman was found dead with multiple injuries, said police officer Bhaskar Mukherjee, adding he was waiting for an autopsy report.
No charges have been laid. Another police officer, Sugata Sen, said four men had been detained for questioning.
In the capital, dozens of protesters tried to break through a police cordon Sunday and march to the parliament building but were pushed back. The protesters, belonging to the student wing of main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, shouted anti-government slogans as they marched.
Hundreds of policemen have sealed off the high-security area, where the seat of India’s government is located, in anticipation of more protests. The area is home to parliament, the president’s palace, the prime minister’s office and several ministries.
Gandhi 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.”
Attitudes by Indians toward rape are so entrenched that even politicians and opinion makers have often suggested that women should not go out at night or wear clothes that might be seen as provocative.
A statement from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he offered condolences to the victim’s family and urged India’s government to take steps to deter such crimes and strengthen services for victims.
“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.”