NEW DELHI // 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 4am.
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, said.
"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.