By Tanvi Sharma and Mark Magnier
NEW DELHI -- Police charged six suspects in India with murder Saturday just hours after the victim of a gang rape died, in a case that has sparked violent demonstrations and spurred soul-searching over the nation's treatment of women.
Fearful that the streets would erupt anew, officers in riot gear blocked major New Delhi roads, imposed restrictions on "illegal assembly" and shut subway stations as politicians appealed for calm, fearful of a repeat of last week's violent demonstration over the rape that saw police wield tear gas, water cannons and truncheons against an angry crowd.
But protests remained peaceful, with hundreds chanting and singing around New Delhi's Jantar Mantar square after word spread that the unidentified 23-year-old victim had died overnight of multiple organ failure at a Singapore hospital.
"That girl could have been anyone, you or me," said Damyanti Jena, 26, a computer science student with glasses and braids, holding a "Delhi Is Rape Capital" placard. "Why doesn't the government care? We have to speak up, protest, raise our voices."
As many wondered whether public anger would prompt fundamental social and legal reforms or dissipate as public attention moved elsewhere, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged citizens to channel their emotions constructively.
"It is up to us all to ensure that her death will not have been in vain," Singh said in a statement.
Gang rape is common in India, particularly in rural areas. But most cases go unreported in a society where officials periodically suggest that sexual assaults are the victims' fault for being out unaccompanied or dressing provocatively.
On Thursday, ruling Congress Party lawmaker Abhijit Mukherjee, the son of India's president, said some of the protesters appeared to be "dented and painted" older women rather than students, an apparent reference to cars that are damaged and retouched. Mukherjee apologized after a public outcry ensued over his remarks.
This case touched a deep national nerve in part because there was little blame that even ardent male chauvinists could heap on the victim. On the night of Dec. 16, she saw the film "Life of Pi" with a 28-year-old male companion before they boarded what they assumed was a normal commuter bus.
The six men allegedly operating it, however, reportedly took the equivalent of a 20-cent fare, drew the curtains, sexually assaulted the woman and beat both riders with iron rods before dumping them unconscious along the road.
The woman also elicited deep empathy because she embodied India's struggle for upward mobility, having moved to Delhi from central Uttar Pradesh state to pursue a career; her family had sold land to get money for her tuition. New Delhi, where the nation's capital is located, is a section of Delhi.
Public anger has been directed at the government, which took days to respond and seemed more worried about public fallout than reform, and the police, over what many saw as their incompetence in fighting crime and sexual assault.
A rape is reported in Delhi every 18 hours, according to police statistics, the highest incidence of sex crimes among India's major cities.
"RIP: India's daughter," and "India's brave daughter," read TV station ticker-tape headlines as her body and family were scheduled to be flown back from Singapore on Saturday evening aboard a chartered aircraft.
Some have questioned the decision to move her to Singapore on Thursday when she was already in critical condition.
"Several doctors called to say moving critically ill survivor to Singapore dictated by politics not medicine," television anchor Rahul Kanwal said in a Twitter message. "Hoping problem would fly away."
But Dr. B.D. Athani, superintendent of New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital, where she was treated before the transfer, disagreed. "The pure intention was to save her," he told reporters.
As public anger exploded, Indian officials struggled to craft a response, with proposals ranging from knee-jerk — ban curtains in all vehicles — to hard-line, including calls to extend the death penalty in extreme sexual assault cases.
The six men arrested in the attack also face rape and kidnapping charges after reportedly telling police they were "looking for fun." The government has promised to fast-track their trial in a country where legal cases often take a decade or longer.
The government set up committees to speed up sexual assault trials and to identify systemic lapses, because the bus on which the attack reportedly took place passed through several police checkpoints. Officials also announced plans to post the names, addresses and photographs of convicted rapists on official websites to shame them publicly.
Analysts said they hoped the anger over this case would lead to significant change, although some weren't optimistic.
"People are losing faith in the Parliament, police reforms are pending for the past 20 years, nothing has been done," said Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist and board member of the Dehradun-based Doon School. "This is not the isolated case where law has failed us. This is a generic and widespread disease."
Singh on Thursday called for mind-set shifts as women in India's rapidly changing society take a greater role in the workforce and walk or drive alone at night.
"Women and girls represent half the population and our society hasn't been fair to this half," the prime minister told a government council.
But the problems are deep-seated, India's legal system is notoriously creaky and enforcement is often lax. Families are frequently wary of reporting rapes, fearful of being asked for bribes to file a case or of being publicly humiliated.
Nationwide, the rape conviction rate is just 25%, and in rural communities where the stigma over "tainted goods" is greatest, women are sometimes pressured into marrying their attackers.
"There has been a failure by all parties in this case," said Shiv Visvanathan, a sociology professor at Sonipat's O.P. Jindal Global University. "People are shaken."
A survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in June placed India among the worst places to be a woman globally, given high rates of infanticide, child marriage and economic and sexual slavery.
"The police know this will eventually die down, they're just waiting," said Vinay Singh, 26, an advertising copywriter, wearing a beard and jeans as he protested Saturday at Jantar Mantar. "But we're all to blame.
"Can India reform? Maybe, but lots and lots need to be done."
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