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Ben Doherty


DELHI: She has been dubbed ‘‘ Amanat’’ , a treasure kept in trust, ‘‘ Damini’’ , for a Bollywood movie heroine, and ‘‘ Nirbhaya’’ , fearless. But the signs at protests across the country have given her another sobriquet: ‘‘ India’s Daughter’’ . In her anonymity, without a name, a village, a caste, she has belonged to the whole nation.

Two weeks after she was attacked on a bus by six men, beaten with an iron rod and gang raped for nearly an hour, the 23-year-old woman – her name still a closely guarded secret – was cremated early on Sunday morning.

The Hindu cremation service was performed in the outer Delhi suburb of Dwarka before family members and a small number of friends. ‘‘ I came because I really loved this girl. She was the brightest of all the girls in our neighbourhood,’’ Meena Rai, a friend and neighbour , told reporters.

She was to be married in February . ‘‘ They had made all the wedding preparations and had planned a wedding party in Delhi,’’ Ms Rai said.

Much of central Delhi remains on lockdown for fear of violent protests.

The anger of the first days after the woman’s attack has given way to a period of national mourning. The furious protesters have been replaced by students walking in neat lines in complete silence.

A woman is raped in India every 22 minutes according to crime statistics, but this attack has exercised the country and, in particular its capital, like none before it.

At a protest in Jantar Mantar, in central Delhi, a student, Vijaya, told Fairfax Media this victim represented all Indian women.

‘‘ This could be any one of us. Every woman in Delhi knows what it is liked to be grabbed or for someone to say something filthy to us. This happens every day; we are not safe ever.’’

Urbanisation has brought Old India, a deeply conservative, patriarchal rural society – still half of all Indian families live on small farms – into conflict with modern cities’ ideas about women, their right to education , to work and a prominent place in society.

India has had a woman prime minister, and one of the most powerful people in the country today is Sonia Gandhi.

But sons are still valued above daughters in India. Girl foetuses are aborted and infant girls allowed to die. Boys are fed better and sent to school, while girls often go hungry and are kept at home. Such attitudes may take generations to change.

The six men alleged to have committed the attack against this woman have all been arrested. Most are from rural villages, where rape is seen less as a crime than a risk girls run growing up. A common solution is to bully the girl into marrying her attacker.

But this case may be the one where India, finally, says no.

The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, has opened a commission of inquiry into the safety of women and tougher penalties for rapists have been promised by government ministers.

But the most significant change has come in the consciousness of the public and in that of India’s institutions.

Dozens of other attacks on women, usually barely reported, if at all, have become front-page news. Police forces, so often seen as part of the problem, are promising swifter, more sensitive action, in cases of sexual assault.

And there is pressure for India’s justice system, sometimes so slow-moving as to be almost irrelevant, to be fasttracked for sex cases.

India has had its ‘‘ I am Spartacus’ ’ moments before, displays of a remarkable solidarity across a country of more than 1 billion people of disparate wealth and circumstance.

A year ago the country was unified behind a retired truck driver named Kisan Baburao Hazare, known as Anna Hazare, who led massively popular hunger strikes against India’s endemic corruption.

Twelve months on, Hazare’s protests are forgotten, but the corruption lives on.

Protesters in Delhi are demanding and hoping their campaign against sexual violence will be different.

‘‘ There has to be change,’’ Darshan Gupta said at Munirka, near where the woman boarded the bus a fortnight ago. ‘‘ Too many people are angry, the government , the police, the people in power, they have to listen now.’’

About 120 people from Sydney’s Indian-Australian community gathered at Parramatta Park on Sunday afternoon and signed a petition calling for India’s government to pass stronger laws to protect women and marking a moment’s silence.

One of the organisers, Manbir Kohli, suggested those in attendance boycott travelling to India until it could ensure their safety.

His 18-year-old daughter Naina, who grew up in Australia, said law changes had to be accompanied by cultural change. ‘‘ There’s all these [Hindu] goddesses but if we seriously can’t respect what we’ve got in front of us … what’s the point?’’

with AFP, Leesha McKenny

Copyright © 2013 The Sydney Morning Herald