Dozens of people are hurt in protests in New Delhi's government district
Police blast anti-rape protesters with water cannon, fire tear gas
Demonstrators wave banners, chant "We want justice"
Police say a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped, badly beaten on a New Delhi bus
Police in India blasted protesters with water cannon and tear gas Saturday as clashes broke out at a rally in New Delhi against rape, leaving scores of people drenched and angry.
The demonstration was prompted by wide public outrage over what police said was the gang-rape and beating of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in the capital last Sunday.
Her injuries were so severe she spent days in intensive care in a city hospital, battling for her life. Police said Saturday that she had recovered enough to give a statement to a magistrate from her hospital bed the previous evening.
Dozens of police, some equipped with bamboo canes, flanked the water cannon as it blasted out on to the thousands of protesters assembled by New Delhi’s historic India Gate.
Some demonstrators attempted to break through the security barriers blocking access to the country’s government district, parliament building and presidential palace.
Others chanted, punched the air in defiance and waved banners as the police sought to disperse them from Raisina Hill, the seat of Indian power.
“Hang them till death,” read the placard of one protester seeking capital punishment for rape suspects.
“Stop this shame,” read another. A third said, “Give them the same physical torture.”
Shouts of “We want justice” also rose above the large and diverse crowd, symbolizing a widely felt anger over attacks against women. Banners proclaiming the same message were marked with a hangman’s noose.
One young woman protester, who said her leg was injured by a blow from a police baton, lamented what she called a failure of democracy in the country.
“Today, I have seen democracy dying,” she said.
New Delhi’s police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said up to 35 protesters and nearly 40 police personnel were injured.
Thirty barricades were damaged in the course of the protest, he said, and police fired 125 tear gas shells. A number of vehicles were also damaged, he said.
Saturday’s furious protest was just the latest held across the country in the past week, where official data show that rape cases have jumped almost 875% over the past 40 years – from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011.
New Delhi alone reported 572 rapes last year and more than 600 in 2012.
Bhavyaa Sharma, a 19-year-old student at a leading women’s college in the capital, told CNN how she fears for her safety when she leaves the campus. Sexual assaults on women in the city have horrified her and her female friends.
“I feel vulnerable here,” said Sharma, accompanied by her classmates. “I am very sure about it. Delhi is not safe for women.”
Six suspects, including the bus driver and a minor, have now been arrested in connection with Sunday’s rape.
As fury about the assault gathered pace, some Indian lawmakers even called for treating rape as a capital crime.
“We’ll work collectively to see we make a law which is deterrent and preventive,” said New Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit.
India’s Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters Saturday that the government would work toward increasing punishment in “rarest of the rare” rape cases.
But pressed on whether the administration would agree to demands for death by hanging in such instances, he said: “We’ll have to see in what way it (the rape sentencing) can be enhanced.”
Shinde said the government was pushing for a speedy trial for the attack.
Authorities are also taking a number of steps to improve security for women in New Delhi, particularly on public transport, he said.
“(The) government shares the widespread concern and support that has been expressed throughout society for the girl who has so suffered. Government also respects the right of legitimate protest,” he said.
“At the same time, there is need to exercise calm at this juncture and for everyone to work together to improve the safety and security environment.”
In the meantime, the victim has been promised the best possible medical care, Shinde said.
A physician described the woman’s condition Saturday as better than a day earlier, but said there was still a risk of infection. She is receiving psychological as well as medical care, he said.
Following the brutal assault, the country’s human rights body shot off notices to city police and federal authorities, demanding an explanation.
“The incident has raised the issue of declining public confidence in the law and order machinery in the city, especially in its capacity to ensure safety of women, as a number of such incidents have been reported in the national capital in the recent past,” the National Human Rights Commission said in a statement Tuesday.
Home Secretary R. K. Singh announced the suspension of five police officers in the wake of Sunday’s rape.
Meantime, some observers say anti-women acts in India stem from the country’s largely patriarchal social setup.
Indians’ preference for sons over daughters, for example, has manifested itself in a worrisome population imbalance. The 2011 census of the world’s second-most populous nation recorded an alarming drop in the percentage of girls among country’s preschoolers.
For every 1,000 boys up to 6 years old, the census counted 914 girls, a drop from 927 a decade ago. It’s illegal in India to abort a child because of its sex, but such abortions happen, often aided by illegal clinics.
CNN’s Harmeet Shah Singh and Mallika Kapur reported from New Delhi, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London.