By Mayank Bhardwaj
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian police used batons, tear gas and water cannon to turn back thousands of people marching on the presidential palace on Saturday in intensifying protests against the gang-rape of a woman on the streets and on social media.
The 23-year-old victim is battling for her life in hospital after she was beaten, raped for almost an hour and thrown out of a moving bus on a busy New Delhi street last Sunday. Five people have been arrested.
The protesters, largely college students, are demanding the death penalty for the accused and safety assurances for women.
New Delhi, home to about 16 million people, has the highest number of sex crimes among India's major cities. Police figures show a rape is reported on average every 18 hours and some other form of sexual attack every 14 hours.
Appealing for calm, India's junior minister for home affairs, R.P.N. Singh, said the government had listened to the protesters.
"We have assured on the floor of the house and on every platform possible that strictest action will be taken against the accused. The police have been asked to show restraint but I want to tell boys and girls that breaking barriers will not help," Singh said.
But the protests are growing amid widespread media coverage.
"If Rahul Gandhi claims to be a youth icon then he should have been here, talking to protesters and taking up the issue of women's safety," one protester said.
Gandhi, the 42-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of its 65 years of independence, is widely seen as a future prime minister.
Marches, demonstrations and candlelight vigils have spread during the week to cities in states from the north of the country to the south.
In the northeastern state of Assam, hundreds of women and girls marched through the city of Guwahati on Friday, carrying placards and shouting "Hang Rapists" and "Stop Violence Against Women".
(Additional reporting by Anuja Jairam; Editing by Nick Macfie)