Indian authorities throttled movement in the heart of the capital on Monday, shutting roads and railway stations in a bid to restore law and order after police fought pitched battles with protesters enraged by the gang rape of a young woman.
In an unusual televised address, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for calm after the weekend clashes in New Delhi and vowed to punish the rapists for their "monstrous" crime.
Singh's government, often accused by critics of being out of touch with the aspirations of many Indians, has been caught off-guard by the depth of the popular outrage as protests have snowballed and spread to other cities. India is seen as one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman.
Instead of channelling the outrage, the government has found itself on the defensive over the use of force against the mostly student protesters in New Delhi and complaints that it has done little to create a safer environment for women.
The protests have been the biggest in the capital since 2011 demonstrations against corruption that rocked the government.
"As in much else, this government is clueless as to what India aspires to and demands," Mint newspaper said in an editorial.
Police barricaded roads leading to India Gate, an imposing Arc de Triomphe-style war memorial in the centre of the city, that has become a hub of the protests by mostly college students. Many metro rail stations in fog-shrouded Delhi were also closed, crippling movement around the city of 16 million.
The 23-year-old victim of the Dec. 16 attack, who was beaten, raped for almost an hour and thrown out of a moving bus in New Delhi, was still in a critical condition on respiratory support, doctors said.
In the weekend spasm of violent protests, police use batons, teargas and water cannon against demonstrators around the capital. Protests have also taken place in other Indian cities but they have been more peaceful.
"I appeal to all concerned citizens to maintain peace and calm. I assure you we will make all possible efforts to ensure security and safety of women in this country," Singh said in his televised address to the nation.
Singh has been under fire for remaining largely silent since the rape. He issued a statement for the first time on Sunday, a week after the crime. Sonia Gandhi, chief of the ruling Congress Party, has met some of the protesters to hear their demands.
Comments by political commentators, sociologists and protesters suggest the rape has tapped into a deep well of frustration that many Indians have over what they see as weak governance and poor leadership on social and economic issues.
"There is a huge amount of anger. People are deeply upset that despite so many incidents there has not been much response from the state and the government," said social activist Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi.
SOCIAL MEDIA SITES DRIVE PROTESTS
New Delhi has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities, with a rape reported on average every 18 hours, according to police figures. A global poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation in June found that India was the worst place in the world to be a woman because of high rates of infanticide, child marriage and slavery.
Since last week's rape, the authorities have promised better police patrolling to ensure safety for women returning from work and entertainment districts, the installation of global positioning system devices on public transport vehicles, more buses at night, and fast-track courts for swift verdicts on cases of rape and sexual assaults.
But protesters view those measures as inadequate and are looking for the government to take a firmer stand on sexual assaults, most of which go unreported.
Opposition political parties, normally quick to exploit the government's vulnerabilities, have largely been sidelined in the protests, which have mostly been organised through social media networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
The protesters come from all walks of life but many are young and middle class with growing aspirations after a decade of rapid economic growth.
Noting the youth of the protesters, Mint newspaper said "the protests against the brutal assault is only a metaphor of their general dissatisfaction.
"The new India promises much but delivers little. There are no jobs to absorb the 12 million joining the workforce every year."
The protesters' focus has been on the rape case rather than on other grievances. They are demanding more steps from the authorities to ensure safety for women - particularly better policing - and some want the death penalty for those convicted.