NEW DELHI—Thousands of Indians poured into the streets of cities across the country Saturday to mourn the death of a young woman who was gang raped nearly two weeks ago in an incident that triggered a national conversation about violence against women.
Police announced that the six men arrested in connection with the attack were charged with murder after the woman, who suffered a brain injury and other internal damage, died in a hospital in Singapore, where she had been taken for care.
The government, responding to rising anger, promised to put the trial on a fast track.
“We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Saturday. “These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change.”
The protesters, many of whom wore black tape across their mouths and held candles, were not allowed to march on the central boulevard, called India Gate, as they did last week. Police boxed them into a tiny street in the heart of the city where they sat on the ground chanting slogans and singing songs.
In other parts of the city, a steady stream of mourners also marched silently along sidewalks and in neighborhood parks. As night fell, many gathered in cities across the country, holding candles in tribute to the victim.
“Every Indian girl has died with her today because we all felt so connected emotionally with her,” Anubhuti Shukla, 23-year-old communications intern, said as she texted her friends information about the candlelight vigil in New Delhi. “If we forget the issues after her death, it would be the real shame. She died, but she woke us up.”
The victim was returning home from a movie and had boarded a bus with a male friend on the night of Dec. 16 when four men, including the bus driver, allegedly beat them up and gang raped her. The victims were then thrown out of the bus and left to die.
Indian authorities have been bitterly criticized for not doing enough for women’s safety, and later for attacking the protesters with canes, tear gas shells and water cannons. Many doctors even questioned the government’s decision to send the victim to Singapore in such a fragile condition, with some saying it was a political decision and not a medical one, aimed at containing the street protests.
“She should have been stabilized first and then sent off to Singapore,” said Samiran Nundy, who heads the department of gastroenterology at Sir Gangaram Hospital in New Delhi. “The risks of transporting her in that condition outweighed any benefits that may accrue in a hospital in another country.”
Since the incident, Indians have heatedly discussed issues concerning the treatment of women, including violence, police attitudes, safety on public transportation, clothing and even Bollywood’s gender stereotypes.
Meanwhile, another rape case has also drawn widespread public. On Wednesday, a teenage rape victim committed suicide in the northern state of Punjab after police reportedly asked her demeaning questions when she went to the station to report.
“The police refused to file a complaint. Instead, they asked my sister such vulgar details, it was as if she was being raped all over again,” the victim’s sister, Charanjit Kaur, said in a telephone interview from her village. “There was no lady police officer, they were all men. My sister cried in front of them and kept asking, ‘Would you still ask such questions if I were your daughter?’ “
Activists say that such cases illustrate why sexual violence largely goes unreported in India. In recent years, New Delhi has earned the title of being the “rape capital” of the nation. This year, more than 560 cases of rapes have been reported. But activists say that only a small fraction of sex crimes are reported in India.
“Many families do not want to report rape because they think the woman will become a subject of social ridicule if the secret is out,” said Sunita Thakur, 45, a counselor with Jagori, a women’s rights advocacy group. “That secrecy and silence is now being broken by the public conversations on the streets about sexual violence. But a much more difficult conversation needs to take place within the families, too, about status of women. That is where it all begins.”
Suman Nalwa, a deputy police commissioner who heads the crimes against women unit in New Delhi, said that women fear being “labeled as a morally loose woman by the police, by the medical officer, lawyer and judge” if the report a sex-related crime.
“Women prefer to stay silent, ignore and look away when they face sexual violence,” she said. “They know if they speak up, nobody would support. They internalize it to such an extent that it influences their life choices about where they will go to study, where they will work and when they will go out.”