, NEW DELHI, Dec 30 – The body of a gang-rape victim arrived back in a grief-stricken India on Sunday, two weeks on from the savage assault which led to her death in a Singapore hospital and sickened the nation.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport to offer his condolences to the parents of the unnamed student who had accompanied their daughter’s body home on a specially-chartered plane.
And before dawn broke, a convoy then whisked the relatives to the Delhi neighbourhood which had been home to the 23-year-old as she studied for a degree in medicine before being lured on board a bus by a gang of rapists and killers.
Waves of protests have erupted across India since the attack on the night of December 16 when the woman was not only repeatedly raped but also sexually assaulted with an iron bar, leaving her with terrible intestinal injuries.
After being treated in a Delhi hospital, she was flown to Singapore on Wednesday night but doctors were unable to prevent a multiple organ failure and she was pronounced dead in the early hours of Saturday morning.
The death has not only prompted the government to promise better protection for women but also deep soul-searching in a nation where sex crimes are a daily occurrence and sexual harassment is routinely described as “eve-teasing”.
The Times of India said in an editorial Sunday that there were still questions that remained unanswered about the seriousness of her condition when she was flown out of Delhi and the wisdom of transferring her to Singapore.
“These questions, and several others, will now be raised. Not all of them may be answered, but one of them must be — what exactly will the government do now to make the country a safer and better place for all women? And what will all of us do to tackle deeply entrenched prejudice and misogyny in our society?”
Thousands of people took part in late-night candlelit vigils Saturday after Singh led appeals for calm to prevent a repeat of the sometimes violent protests.
As police said the six accused of murdering the unnamed woman could face the death penalty, mourners vowed the killing would serve as a tipping point for how the nation deals with violence against women.
“We are aware that this is not the first case, nor will it be the last case of gang-rape in India, but it is clear that we will not tolerate sex crimes any more,” said Bela Rana, a lawyer who joined a rally in solidarity for the victim on Saturday in the Jantar Mantar thoroughfare in central Delhi.
The numbers swelled through the day and some 5,000 took part in a candlelit vigil after nightfall despite near freezing temperatures.
Similar protests and vigils were held in other towns and cities across the country, including Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad.
Some of the protesters carried placards that read “Hang the Rapist” against the backdrop of a noose.
Six men who had already been arrested are now accused of murder.
“It is a non-bailable offence which carries the death sentence,” police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told AFP.
Delhi has been dubbed the “rape capital” of India and a report in Sunday’s Hindustan Times said that more than 20 women had been raped since December 16.
The real figure is likely to be far higher as many sex assaults go unreported by victims who have little faith in an often painfully slow justice system and are deterred by the response they can receive from male police officers.
But the particularly savage nature of the attack in Delhi has brought simmering anger to a boiling point and prompted the government to promise better security for women and harsher sentences for sex crimes.
“She may have lost her battle for life, it is up to us all to ensure that her death will not have been in vain,” Singh said in a statement on Saturday.
“We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated… It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channelize these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action.”