The victim of a gang-rape and murder which triggered an outpouring of grief and revulsion across India was cremated at a private ceremony on Sunday as it emerged she was planning to marry in February.
The unidentified 23-year-old, the focus of nationwide protests since she was attacked on a bus in New Delhi two weeks ago, was cremated at a ceremony kept secret by authorities only hours after her body was repatriated from Singapore.
The funeral pyre was lit after traumatised relatives and friends said their final prayers at a ceremony in southwestern Delhi, according to mourners who revealed she had been due to wed a boyfriend who was injured in the same attack.
"They had made all the wedding preparations and had planned a wedding party in Delhi" for February, said Meena Rai, who was a close friend and neighbour. "I really loved this girl. She was the brightest of all."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the main ruling Congress party, were at Delhi airport to console her parents as they arrived home on a chartered plane with their daughter's body at around 4:00 am (2230 GMT).
After initial treatment in a Delhi hospital following the attack, she was flown to Singapore on Wednesday night where doctors were unable to prevent a multiple organ failure. She was pronounced dead in the early hours of Saturday.
Her killing has prompted government promises of better protection for women, and deep soul-searching in a nation where horrifying gang-rapes are commonplace and sexual harassment is routinely dismissed as "Eve-teasing".
Several thousand people massed again on Sunday in the centre of the Indian capital -- some to express sympathy for the victim who had been out to watch a film with her boyfriend, others to voice anger at the government.
Stringent security measures that have seen government offices and other public areas sealed off in New Delhi to prevent protests have been seized on by critics as further evidence of an out-of-touch government bungling its response.
"We cannot understand the high-handedness of the police. This is our city, we should be free to move around and protest peacefully," 21-year-old protester Mahima Anand, who works for a multi-national company, told AFP.
"She was not just one woman, she epitomises every Indian woman who has been wronged in some way or the other," she added from the Jantar Mantar area of Delhi, where protesters have been allowed to gather.
About a dozen protesters tried to break the barricades that riot police erected around the area, while a handful also threw stones and were immediately detained.
Waves of protests erupted across India after the attack on December 16 when the woman was repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted with an iron bar, leaving her with terrible intestinal injuries.
Thousands took part in late-night candlelit vigils on Saturday after 80-year-old Singh, criticised for reacting slowly to the crime, led appeals for calm to prevent a repeat of the sometimes violent protests.
The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also sent his condolences to the victim's parents and family on Sunday. "Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated," Ban's spokesperson said.
As police said the six accused of murdering the unnamed woman could face the death penalty, there was widespread determination that the killing should 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 central Delhi.
But Sunday's Hindustan Times said more than 20 women had been raped in New Delhi since December 16 and the Press Trust of India news agency reported another alleged murder and gang-rape on Sunday in the state of West Bengal.
According to police and prosecutors, the ordeal suffered by the victim of the Delhi crime began when six men lured her and her boyfriend onto a bus that they thought would take them home.
Instead the group, who had been drinking heavily, launched a savage attack lasting some 40 minutes that ended when the victims were thrown off the bus.
Protesters and the Indian media have demanded that the government unveil measures to make the country safer for women, while introspecting on how to uproot deep prejudice and misogyny in Indian society.
Initial government proposals include a public register for sex offenders and forcing convicted rapists to undergo chemical castration -- the use of drugs to suppress sexual urges.
The government has already promised to bring in tougher sentences for the most extreme sex crimes and speed up a notoriously slow justice system that often fails to deliver timely verdicts.
Human Rights Watch called on the government on Sunday to ban the use of the so-called "finger test" in which a doctor tests the laxity of a rape victim's vagina, apparently to determine if she is "habituated to sexual intercourse".
Such tests result in "unscientific and degrading findings" that often wrongly discredit complaints from women, the New York-based rights group said.
India's vigil for victim's body ends
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."
Rapists charged with murder; India's midnight vigil for body
EARLIER: Indian police charged six men with murder on Saturday, hours after a woman who was gang-raped and beaten on a bus in New Delhi nearly two weeks ago died in a Singapore hospital.
New Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said the six face the death penalty if convicted, in a case that has triggered protests across India for greater protection for women from sexual violence, and raised questions about lax attitudes by police toward sexual crimes.
The body of the 23-year-old victim of brutal gang-rape and assault in Delhi is likely to be flown to India around midnight, hours after she died at a Singapore super specialty hospital, according to The Times of India.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was aware of the emotions the attack has stirred, adding it was up to all Indians to ensure that the young woman's death will not have been in vain.
The victim "passed away peacefully" early Saturday at Mount Elizabeth hospital in Singapore with her family and officials of the Indian Embassy by her side, Dr. Kevin Loh, the chief executive of the hospital, said in a statement.
After 10 days at a hospital in New Delhi, the Indian capital, the woman was brought Thursday to Mount Elizabeth, which specializes in multi-organ transplants. Loh said the woman had been in extremely critical condition since Thursday, and by late Friday her condition had taken a turn for the worse, with her vital signs deteriorating.
"Despite all efforts by a team of eight specialists in Mount Elizabeth hospital to keep her stable, her condition continued to deteriorate over these two days," Loh said. "She had suffered from severe organ failure following serious injuries to her body and brain. She was courageous in fighting for her life for so long against the odds, but the trauma to her body was too severe for her to overcome."
The woman and a male friend, who have not been identified, were on a bus in New Delhi after watching a film on the evening of Dec. 16 when they were attacked by six men who raped her. The men beat the couple and inserted an iron rod into the woman's body, resulting in severe organ damage. Both were then stripped and thrown off the bus, according to police.
Indian police have arrested six people in connection with the attack, which left the victim with severe internal injuries, a lung infection and brain damage. She also suffered from a heart attack while in the hospital in New Delhi.
Indian High Commissioner, or ambassador, T.C.A. Raghavan told reporters that the scale of the injuries the woman suffered was "very grave" and in the end "proved too much."
He said arrangements were being made to return her body to India later Saturday.
The frightening nature of the crime shocked Indians, who have come out in the thousands for almost daily demonstrations.
As news of the victim's death reached New Delhi early Saturday, hundreds of policemen sealed off the high-security India Gate area, where the seat of India's government is located, in anticipation of more protests. The area is home to the president's palace, the prime minister's office and key defense, external affairs and home ministries.
The area had seen battles between protesters and police for days after the attack.
Ten metro stations in the vicinity also were closed Saturday, Bhagat said.
Police were allowing people to assemble at the Jantar Mantar and Ramlila grounds, the main areas allotted for protests in New Delhi, he said.
Mourners began gathering at Jantar Mantar 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.
They put a wreath studded with white flowers on the road, lit a candle and sat around it in a silent tribute to the young woman. Members of a theatre group nearby played small tambourine and sang songs urging the society to wake up and end discrimination against women.
Dipali, a working woman who uses one name, said the rape victim deserved justice. "I hope it never happens again to any girl," she said.
Dozens of students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi marched silently to the bus stop from where the rape victim and her friend had boarded the bus on Dec. 16. They carried placards reading "She is not with us but her story must awaken us."
Nehra Kaul Mehra, a young Indian studying urban and gender policing at Colombia University in the United States, said "We come from a feudal and patriarchal set-up where we value men more than women."
"We kill daughters before they are born. Those who live are fed less, educated less and segregated from boys," she said with a black band of protest around her mouth.
Sonia Gandhi, the governing Congress 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."
The protesters heckled Sheila Dikshit, the top elected leader of New Delhi state, when she came to express her sympathy with them and forced her to leave the protest venue. They blamed her for the deteriorating law and order situation in the Indian capital.
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 criminalizes all forms of sexual assault, strengthens mechanisms for implementation and accountability, so that the victims are not blamed and humiliated," Ganguly said.
Prime Minister Singh said he understood the angry reaction to the attack and that he hoped all Indians would work together to make appropriate changes.
"These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change," Singh said in a statement Saturday. "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 the government was examining the penalties for crimes such as rape "to enhance the safety and security of women."
"I hope that the entire political class and civil society will set aside narrow sectional interests and agendas to help us all reach the end that we all desire — making India a demonstrably better and safer place for women to live in," Singh said.
Mamta Sharma, head of the state-run National Commission for Women, said the "time has come for strict laws" to stop violence against women. "The society has to change its mindset to end crimes against women," she said.
The tragedy 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.
Indian attitudes 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 provocative.
On Friday, Abhijit Mukherjee, a national lawmaker and the son of India's president, apologised for calling the protesters "highly dented and painted" women who go from discos to demonstrations.
"I tender my unconditional apology to all the people whose sentiments got hurt," he told NDTV news.
Tweets of sadness
Several Indian celebrities reacted with sadness Saturday over the woman's death. Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan tweeted, "Her body has passed away, but her soul shall forever stir our hearts."
Separately, authorities in Punjab state took action Thursday when an 18-year-old woman killed herself by drinking poison a month after she told police she was gang-raped.
State authorities suspended one police officer and fired two others on accusations they delayed investigating and taking action in the case. The three accused in the rape were arrested only on Thursday night, a month after the crime was reported.
"This is a very sensitive crime, I have taken it very seriously," said Paramjit Singh Gill, a top police officer in the city of Patiala.
The Press Trust of India reported that the woman was raped Nov. 13 and reported the attack to police Nov. 27. But police harassed the girl, asked her embarrassing questions and took no action against the accused, PTI reported, citing police sources.
Authorities in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh also suspended a police officer on accusations he refused to register a rape complaint from a woman who said she had been attacked by a driver.