Salil Shetty, 51, said he was also keen to make Amnesty, whose members have traditionally come from North America and Europe, a mass body in the developing world including in India, Brazil and South Africa.
"(The rape of the 23-year-old) is a wake-up call to the country," Secretary General Shetty said in an interview. "The outrage is good. The anger is well deserved."
But he insisted that there was no evidence that death penalty was a deterrent to any crime, rapes included.
"The very recent mass shooting of school children in the US backs our point," he said. "The US is one of the few Western countries which still gives out capital punishment. Has that deterred crime there?
"On the contrary, crime has fallen in some of the American states that have abolished capital punishment. This is also true of Canada too," he said.
Amnesty, one of the world's oldest human rights groups with three million members globally, has always opposed the death penalty -- on any ground.
"It (capital punishment) has no justification," said Shetty. "A decision on death (penalty) can't be made on immediate anger."
This was particularly so in developing countries where the criminal justice system was weak. He said it would be far more important to examine the reasons why rapes take place, and the inadequacies of the legal and judicial regime to curb rapes and other crime.
While India had plenty of strengths, Shetty pointed out, there was also a culture of impunity that "makes people feel they can get away with everything".
"If you are powerful and have money, then we can get away -- that's the thinking. There is no respect for law... We need to reflect on that," Shetty said.
Shetty also put the December 16 crime -- when six men raped the woman and thrashed her male friend in a moving bus at night before dumping them 40 minutes later -- in the larger perspective.
"Unfortunately, it is not an unusual crime. It happens frequently with the less privileged. Here it happened in Delhi. And it was most horrific. In no way am I minimising its significance."
Amnesty was founded in 1961 -- the year Shetty was born -- and now has offices in more than 80 countries. Although it has always had a presence in India, it is only now that Amnesty has opened its office in Bangalore, Shetty's hometown. It will set up soon a smaller centre in New Delhi.
The Indian, who earlier worked in the UN and Action Aid, said he wants to make Amnesty a mass movement in India and "the global South".
"This is not a new decision. But I am certainly the first person to give this idea a push," added Shetty, the third person from one of the developing countries to head Amnesty after a Senegalese and a Bangladeshi.
(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at email@example.com) —IANS