The body of a young woman who was gang-raped and brutally beaten on a moving bus in India’s capital has been cremated.
Indian police have charged six men with murder in the December 16 attack, which shocked the country and triggered protests for greater protection for women from sexual violence.
The murder charges were laid yesterday, hours after the woman died in a Singapore hospital, where she had been flown for treatment.
Her body was cremated in a private ceremony today in New Delhi soon after its arrival from Singapore on a special Air-India flight.
Premier 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.
After the body arrived at the airport, it was taken to the woman's home in New Delhi for religious rituals before being escorted by police to the crematorium.
Security was tight, with no access to the public or media at the crematorium.
Sheila Dikshit, the senior elected leader of New Delhi, and junior home minister R.P.N. Singh placed wreaths beside the body before it was cremated.
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.
After 10 days at a hospital in New Delhi, the victim, who has not been identified, was taken on Thursday to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth hospital, which specialises in multi-organ transplants.
She arrived there in extremely critical condition, and then took a turn for the worse, with her vital signs deteriorating. She died with her family and officials of the Indian embassy by her side.
Following her death, thousands of Indians lit candles, held prayer meetings and marched through various cities and towns, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata, last 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.
Women face daily harassment across India, ranging from catcalls on the streets, groping and touching in public transport, to rape.
The incident 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.
Prime minister Mr Singh said yesterday 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.
On the night of the attack, the woman and a male friend were on a bus after watching a film when they were attacked by six men who raped her. The men beat the couple, who were stripped and thrown off the bus.
Ms Gandhi, the ruling 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”.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the woman’s death was a sobering reminder of the widespread sexual violence in India.
“The outrage now should lead to law reform that criminalises all forms of sexual assault, strengthens mechanisms for implementation and accountability, so that the victims are not blamed and humiliated,” Ganguly said.
Mr Singh said he understood the angry reaction to the attack and he hoped all Indians would work together to make appropriate changes.
“It would be a true homage to her memory if we are able to channel these emotions and energies into a constructive course of action,” he said.
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 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.”
Mr 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.