By Rupam Jain Nair
New Delhi (AFP) – Indian leaders appealed for calm and security forces headed off fresh unrest by turning New Delhi into a fortress on Saturday after a student who was savagely gang-raped died in a Singapore hospital.
Police threw a ring of steel around the centre of the Indian capital after news of the 23-year-old medical student’s death was broken in the early hours by the Singapore hospital that had been treating her for the last two days.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led the tributes to the unnamed woman who has been dubbed “India’s Daughter” as he insisted he understood the wave of protests that erupted in the aftermath of her assault on December 16.
Her body is to be flown back to India later in the day, accompanied by her parents who were at her bedside when she was pronounced dead at 4:45 am.
“She had suffered from severe organ failure following serious injuries to her body and brain,” said Kelvin Loh, chief executive of Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
“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.”
After boarding a bus on December 16, the student was attacked by six men who took it in turns to rape her and assaulted her with an iron bar before throwing her and her male companion off the moving vehicle.
The six men who had already been arrested are now facing murder charges, which can carry the death penalty.
“We hope to file the charge sheet by 3 January,” said Dharmendra Kumar, one of Delhi’s most senior police officers.
Gang-rapes are a daily occurrence in India and many 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 brought simmering anger to the boiling point and prompted the government to promise better security for women and harsher sentences for sex crimes.
“We have already seen the emotions and energies this incident has generated,” said Singh.
“These are perfectly understandable reactions from a young India and an India that genuinely desires change.”
His comments were echoed by Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party and India’s most powerful politician.
“As a woman and mother, I understand the pain. Her fight will not go in vain,” said Gandhi.
The police have been heavily criticised for their hardline tactics in trying to quash the protests, including the frequent use of teargas and water cannon.
Neeraj Kumar, Delhi’s police commissioner, urged people to maintain calm as the area around the India Gate monument – the epicentre of the protests – would be sealed off.
Ten downtown metro stations were also closed while large numbers of roadblocks were set up on roads leading to government buildings.
Many of the security reinforcements who had been drafted in were women, following a pledge by the government to have a rethink about policing.
Small numbers of protestors did gather in Jantar Mantar, a traditional focus point for rallies.
“The rape of the girl and the trauma she experienced is not new and this has happened in the past but this case has acted like a pressure cooker blast effect,” Anjali Raval, a 35-year-old housewife, told AFP at the rally.
“It is high time we woke up and fought for women’s safety.”
The government has had to fend off claims that the victim was transferred to Singapore to prevent her from dying on Indian soil and thus further inflaming tensions here.
However T.C.A. Raghavan, the Indian high commissioner in Singapore, said the decision was taken on medical grounds after “consultations between the medical team treating her in Delhi with the surgeons and physicians in Singapore.”
The envoy also spoke in a press conference of the ordeal endured by the family of the victim, who hail from a rural part of Uttar Pradesh.
“They have repeatedly asked me to say how inspired they are by the many messages of support and condolences they have received,” he said.
“This reinforces their view that the death of their child will lead to a better future for all women in India and in Delhi.”
Indian news channels carried blanket coverage, with the NDTV network running a ticker-tape headline “RIP India’s Daughter.”
Her ordeal began after she boarded a school bus that a group of six men were taking for a joyride after drinking heavily, according to police and prosecutors.
She had been out at the cinema with a male companion who was also attacked by the gang. The bus, which had tinted windows, was able to pass several police checkpoints before the pair were eventually thrown out of the vehicle.