NEW DELHI - The victim of a gang-rape and murder which triggered an outpouring of grief and anger across India was cremated at a private ceremony on Sunday, hours after her body was flown home from Singapore.
The unidentified 23-year-old, the focus of nationwide protests since she was brutally attacked on a bus in New Delhi two weeks ago, was cremated away from the public glare at the request of her traumatised parents.
The funeral pyre was lit after relatives and friends said their final prayers at a brief ceremony in the southwestern Dwarka district of Delhi, according to mourners who described the medical student as hugely popular and talented.
"I came because I really loved this girl. She was the brightest of all the girls in our neighbourhood," said Meena Rai, who was a close friend and neighbour.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the main ruling Congress party, were at Delhi airport to console the parents as they arrived home on a chartered plane with their daughter's body.
After initial treatment 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.
Her death has prompted government promises of better protection for women, and deep soul-searching in a nation where gang-rapes are a daily occurrence and sexual harassment is routinely dismissed as "Eve-teasing".
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.
Thousands 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, there was a widespread determination that 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 central Delhi.
The city has been dubbed the "rape capital" of India. A report in Sunday's Hindustan Times said more than 20 women had been raped since December 16.
According to police and prosecutors, the murder victim's ordeal began when six men lured her and her male companion onto a bus that they thought would take them home.
Instead a group of joyriders, who had been drinking heavily, launched a savage attack lasting some 40 minutes that only ended when the victims were thrown off the bus.
The attack has prompted intense debate among Indians who had grown almost inured to an epidemic of violence against women.
Gang-rapes are so common that they rarely get a mention in the newspapers. Victims are often deterred even from reporting them for fear of shaming their families or receiving a brush-off from police.
The Times of India said in an editorial Sunday that two key questions must be addressed in the aftermath of the tragedy.
"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?"
The government has already promised to bring in tougher sentences for the most extreme sex crimes and speed up a notoriously slow justice system.
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