Faced with a growing torrent of outrage both at home and abroad, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has moved to address his country’s persistent issue with sexual violence, asserting “rape is rape” and should not be politicized.
The comments come amid stinging criticism from India’s former leader over Modi’s alleged mishandling of the issue, following a string of particularly brutal rape cases which have shocked the nation and triggered countrywide protests.
Modi, who is currently visiting the UK, made the remarks Wednesday during an address to selected members of the Indian-diaspora in London.
“A rape is a rape. How can we tolerate this torture with our daughters? You are always questioning your daughters, why don’t you ask the same questions to your sons? I believe this is the evil of not just the individual but also of the society,” he said.
“This is a matter of great concern for the country. The people who are committing the sin are someone’s son.”
Around 100 sexual assaults are reported to police in India every day, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. There were nearly 39,000 alleged attacks in 2016, an increase of 12% on the previous year.
“Any time a small girl is sexually assaulted, it is painful for all us,” Modi said in London.
“But can we compare the number of rapes in different governments? We can’t say there were this many rapes in our government and that many in yours. There cannot be a worse way to deal with this issue.”
Fallout from recent cases, including two alleged unrelated attacks on girls aged 16 and eight, is threatening to overshadow Modi’s visit to the UK. On Wednesday, hundreds of protestors gathered outside Downing Street and the British Parliament, waving placards reading “go home Modi” and “hang the rapists” as the Indian leader prepared to meet with UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
Violent protests at home
Modi’s arrival in the UK comes as violent clashes between protesting students and police continued in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the scene of the rape and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim girl, with demonstrators demanding justice for the young victim.
In Jammu and Kashmir’s Shopian district Thursday, security forces fired warning shots into the air and launched teargas shells to disperse the crowd. As many as twelve people were taken to hospital where they are in stable condition, hospital officials said.
The alleged gang rape was originally reported in January but it wasn’t until April 11, when a group of lawyers and right-wing Hindu activists attempted to forcibly block investigators from filing charges against the accused, that the case began to attract nationwide attention.
The girl, who belonged to a Muslim nomadic community known as the Bakarwals, was abducted while grazing horses in a meadow in the isolated Himalayan district of Kathua on January 12.
From there, it is alleged she was taken to a Hindu temple, where she was drugged, held captive and repeatedly raped for five days by different men.
Police have arrested eight suspects in connection with her death, all of whom are Hindu. Seven of the eight have pleaded not guilty, while the eighth will be tried separately as a minor.
The arrests of the men, who investigators allege plotted the girl’s abduction as a means of scaring the predominately-Muslim nomads into vacating the region, has proved a lightning rod in a part of India simmering with religious tension.
Last Friday, two BJP ministers in the Jammu and Kashmir state government who had participated in the protests in support of the accused outside the courthouse were forced to resign from office, amid accusations of political interference and religious discrimination.
In another case, a state lawmaker from Modi’s own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stands accused of raping a teenager.
Kuldeep Singh Sengar, an elected BJP member of the Uttar Pradesh state legislative assembly, was arrested last week as police investigate claims he raped a 16-year-old girl in June 2017.
A week after the attack, the girl was allegedly abducted and repeatedly raped by others allegedly known to Sengar, who has denied the allegations.
Prior to his arrest, Sengar told India’s CNN News 18: “I have done nothing wrong. I will be proved innocent after the investigation. The rape allegations are false and baseless.”
Poisonous political dimension
The alleged involvement of a BJP member in one of the recent cases has amplified calls for action from Modi, with opponents rounding on the prime minister for his apparent reluctance to properly tackle what is fast becoming a policy crisis.
Speaking to CNN Thursday, the spokesperson for India’s opposition Congress Party, M.V. Rajeev Gowda, accused Modi of “ignoring his party’s people’s complicity in this whole matter.”
“There is a very, very active BJP involvement in all of this. But Modi has referred to them [the separate cases] only as small incidents, basically sending a signal to many rapists … that they can continue to do what they want. It is a let down to the people of India and the women and girls involved in these incidents.”
Speaking to The Indian Express Wednesday, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Modi “should follow his own advice to me and he should speak more often. Through press [reports] I know that he used to criticize me for not speaking up.”
After several days in which he failed to publicly address the cases, despite widespread protests, Modi finally broke his silence during a speech in Delhi on April 13, promising justice for “our daughters.”
His comments came after a day after Swati Maliwal, the head of Delhi’s Commission for Women, published an open letter to Modi, in which she called on rape to be punishable by death. Maliwal has been on a hunger strike since April 13 to push for stricter laws for rape in India.
Vrinda Grover, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, told CNN the issue should be the “single most important agenda of the government.”
“If a prime minister is to be held accountable for basic security and exercise of right to life and liberty for half the population of this country, then it should be a problem for Modi,” said Grover, adding the apparent defense of an accused rapist is symptomatic of “polarization and hate ideology” in the country’s political system.
“A sitting legislator is yet to be removed by the party. There is therefore some kind of overt or covert political patronage,” she said.
“The signal from the top is that there is impunity for sexual violence.”
CNN’s Mukhtar Ahmad and Edwin Thomas contributed to this report.