GHAZIABAD, India — The young lovers met at a secluded spot next to a field of wheat at the edge of this sprawling suburb of New Delhi, where the timeless India of mustard fields and bullock carts abuts the frantically rising apartment towers of the budding middle class. They went seeking solitude, but instead found themselves at the violent cusp of old India and new.
There, according to the police, five drunk young men from a nearby farming village accosted the couple last month, beating the young man and gang-raping the woman. It was the latest in a series of sexual assaults and gang rapes of women in India’s booming capital and its suburbs.
In each case there has been an explosive clash between the rapidly modernizing city and the embattled, conservative village culture upon which the capital increasingly encroaches. The victims are almost invariably young, educated working women who are enjoying freedom unknown even a decade ago.
The accused are almost always young high school dropouts from surrounding villages, where women who work outside the home are often seen as lacking in virtue and therefore deserving of harassment and even rape.
“If these girls roam around openly like this, then the boys will make mistakes,’’ the mother of two of those accused in the rape said in an interview, refusing to give her name.
It is a deeply ingrained attitude that has made New Delhi, by almost any measure, the most dangerous large city in India for women.
The rate of reported rape is nearly triple that of Mumbai, and 10 times higher than Calcutta, according to government records. A survey completed last year by the government and several women’s rights groups found that 80 percent of women had faced verbal harassment in Delhi and that almost a third had been physically harassed by men.
Nearly half the women surveyed reported being stalked, a statistic grimly illustrated on Tuesday when a student at Delhi University was shot by a man the police suspect was stalking her.
The attackers often do not see their actions as crimes, the police said, and do not expect the women they attack to report them. “They have no doubt that they will get away with it,’’ said H.G.S. Dhaliwal, a deputy police commissioner in New Delhi.
India’s economy is expected to grow 9 percent this year, and its extended boom has brought sweeping social change. The number of women in the workforce has roughly doubled in the past 15 years.
Law enforcement officials say that the rate of violent crime against women has actually dropped in Delhi in the past four years, owing to more aggressive policing efforts, measures like women-only train cars and laws that require companies that employ women on late shifts to chauffeur them home.
“There is a lot of tension between the people who are traditional in their mind-set and the city that is changing so quickly,’’ said Ranjana Kumari, a leading women’s rights advocate. “Men are not used to seeing so many women in the country occupying public spaces.’’
In few places is that conflict as evident as in Ghaziabad, which sits at the eastern edge of New Delhi. The farmland where the couple met represents an invisible but indelible dividing line.
There is no question to which side the young couple belonged. The man was an engineer at a high tech company with a salary good enough to afford him a motorbike and a laptop computer.
Their attackers lived in the village of Raispur, less than a mile from the tidy complex where the young man shared an apartment with his parents, but they belong to an altogether different India. None of them managed to graduate from high school. The narrow lanes of their sleepy village are redolent of cow dung.
Unlike the growing ranks of professional women in the city, the women of Raispur live hemmed-in lives, covering their faces with shawls in front of strangers and seldom roaming beyond the village.
Seema Chowdhury, 20, the sister of one of the accused men, graduated from high school. But when she tried to enroll in college to become a teacher, her brothers refused to allow it. Young women who wander too far face many dangers, they argued.
“I wanted to do something in my life,’’ she said. “But they thought it was not a good idea.’’
In comparison, the woman who was raped here had unimaginable freedom. She had a job as an accountant and her own cellphone and e-mail account. Using those, she carried on a secret romance with a man she met online despite the fact that her parents had arranged for her to be married to someone else, according to the police.