More than 630 women are known to have been raped in New Delhi last year, but it took the savage gang-rape of a 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist on her way home from a cinema with a friend to turn the simmering anger of the capital's long-suffering women to boiling rage.
Reports of the 634 attacks that preceded December's rape of the woman who has become known as " India's daughter" were sketchy – a few brief paragraphs in the local newspapers, nothing more. But in this case the details were too brutal to be overlooked. Here was an ordinary, modern, lower middle-class girl trying to get a rickshaw home after a Sunday film at one of the city's growing number of swanky shopping malls. The driver would take her only as far as a market where she and her friend boarded an unlicensed bus. On it, six men, all drunk, first "eve-teased" her – the local euphemism for the harassment of women – then attacked her so savagely that she later died.
Apparently incensed that she was out at night with a man to whom she was not married, they took turns to rape her and beat her friend while the bus cruised the streets of South Delhi, the atrocities inside shielded by curtains and tinted glass. An iron rod was forced inside her, mutilating her genitals and destroying her intestines. She and her friend fell unconscious and were tossed from the bus on a flyover after an ordeal lasting somewhere between 40 minutes and two hours.
The woman was eventually taken to hospital, where 95pc of her intestines were removed in three operations. She suffered brain injuries, internal infections and had trouble breathing, yet she managed to make two statements to police officers to help arrest her torturers.
The capital has rarely if ever read about a rape in such shocking detail and the revelation sparked spontaneous protests in front of Rashtrapati Bhawan, the home of the Indian president and cabinet ministers' offices. There were clashes with police and protests spread throughout India. The country's most powerful woman, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, visited the unnamed victim in hospital and spoke of the national shame of violence against its women. Her prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, later made a televised address to call for calm and voice his own feelings of revulsion.
There have been demands from right- wing Hindu nationalists for the culprits to be hung, while others have called for chemical castration for rapists. But gradually the chants of young, mainly male protesters have given way to a wider discussion of why so many women in India – the world's largest democracy and a polity with powerful women leaders – live in fear of violence and under restrictions that would not offend a Taliban mullah in Kandahar.
India has seen the number of reported rapes rise from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011. In that year, 35,565 women and girls were kidnapped, 42,968 were molested, 8,570 were sexually harassed and 99,135 suffered cruelty at the hands of their husbands or relatives. There were 8,618 "dowry deaths", in which brides were murdered by their husbands or in-laws, often because their fathers had failed to meet increasingly extravagant demands for dowry gifts for the honour of landing a sought-after son.
Last year, there were 754 arrests for rape in New Delhi, but according to the home ministry only one of those accused has so far been convicted. Campaigners say that these figures barely scratch the surface – less than one in 10 rapes are said to be reported because women fear the public shame and the treatment they will receive from the city's notoriously insensitive and hostile police.
Delhi police have now called in leading women's rights campaigners and policy analysts to "sensitise" them to women's concerns during rape and sexual assault investigations. Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research, who is leading the programme, says the growing number of rapes and the low conviction rates have left women feeling unprotected, while many men see themselves as beyond the law. "There is no fear of being punished," she said. "Because of the (police) approach, it is not considered serious crime."
They fear they will be identified and their families will be stigmatised; finding a prospective husband in a wedding-obsessed society then becomes almost impossible, and the prospects of the victim's siblings are similarly blighted.
The stark truth is that the chances of a girl living a happy and fulfilled life of her own choosing in India are poor from the outset. A United Nations report last year said India was the world's most dangerous country in which to be born a girl – almost twice as many girls die between the ages of one and five as boys.
Campaigners say the figures reflect the killing of unwanted girls by families who fear the financial cost of their weddings and neglect girls in favour of brothers. They also believe that up to eight million female foetuses have been aborted in the past 10 years by women under pressure from their in-laws to deliver a son.
Nilanjana Roy, a widely respected novelist and commentator, said the growing violence against women reflects not only traditional discrimination but also a "punitive" response to the new independence increasingly demanded and enjoyed by women in India's cities, as new jobs and opportunities emerge. "The reality of what's happening is that women are doing pretty well in terms of work opportunities, but dreadfully when it comes to sexual violence," she said.
What finally sparked anger over last month's rape and murder was the intensity of the violence and the fact that so many women were able to identify with the victim – a young woman, training for a good job, out to see a film with a friend with the support of her parents.
"This girl was blameless," said Ms Roy. "India's daughter", at just 23, had gone too far for many men, but not nearly far enough for the country's women. The stage is set for a long confrontation between India's past and its future. (© Daily Telegraph, London)