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NEW DELHI—India’s army and navy cancelled New Year’s celebrations on Monday out of respect for a New Delhi student whose gang-rape and murder has set off an impassioned debate about what the nation needs to do to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
“To change a society as conservative, traditional and patriarchal as ours, we will have a long haul,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research. “It will take some time, but certainly there is a beginning.”
The country remained in mourning Monday, two days after the 23-year-old physiotherapy student died from her internal wounds in the Singapore hospital where she had been sent for emergency treatment. Six men have been arrested and charged with murder in the Dec. 16 attack on a New Delhi bus. They face the death penalty if convicted, police said.
Some commentators compared the rape victim, whose name has not been released by police, to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation set off the Arab Spring. There was hope her tragedy could mark a turning point for gender rights in a country where women often refuse to leave their homes at night out of fear and where sex-selective abortions and even female infanticide have wildly skewed the gender ratio.
Politicians from across the spectrum called for a special session of Parliament to pass new laws to increase punishments for rapists — including possible chemical castration — and to set up fast-track courts to deal with rape cases within 90 days.
The government has proposed creating a public database of convicted rapists to shame them, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has set up two committees to look into what lapses led to the rape and to propose changes in the law.
The Delhi government on Monday inaugurated a new helpline — 181 — for women, though it wasn’t working because of glitches.
Responding to complaints that police refuse to file cases of abuse or harassment brought by women, the city force has appointed an officer to meet with women’s groups monthly and crack down on the problem, New Delhi Lt. Gov. Tejendra Khanna said.
There have also been proposals to install a quota to ensure one-third of Delhi’s police are women.
There also have been signs of a change in the public debate about crimes against women.
“How can he tell us to change our clothes?” said Gureet Kaur, a student protester in the Rajasthani town of Alwar. “Why can’t girls live freely?”
Kumari said the country was failing in its basic responsibility to protect its citizens. But she was heartened to see so many young men at the protests along with women.
“I have never heard so many people who felt so deep down hurt,” she said. “It will definitely have some impact.”