NEW DELHI: Activists called protests across India over the weekend, demanding justice for an eight-year-old Muslim girl who was gang-raped and murdered in Indian-held Kashmir, and another rape case involving a ruling party lawmaker.
Police said they were interviewing the BJP lawmaker on Friday in connection with the rape of a teenager, raising the political stakes as opposition groups joined rallies and vigils. The politician’s lawyer said he denied any wrongdoing.
“We are urging every rights group to seek public support and take to the streets across India, the guilty must be punished as soon as possible,” said Ramya Varshney, a member of Awaaz, a voluntary organization providing legal advice to rape victims.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, under mounting pressure to do more to confront sexual violence, condemned the attacks, saying: “Crime against women shames the nation.
“I want to assure the nation that criminals will not be spared. Justice will be done,” he said.
The Muslim girl, Asifa, was found dead in a Hindu-dominated area of Indian-held Kashmir state in January. Anger erupted this week when details of her ordeal were released in a police charge sheet.
Underlining the political tensions over the case, some members of the ruling BJP party joined a rally organized by a hardline Hindu group earlier this week to show support for eight Hindu men accused of the crime, including a former bureaucrat and four police officers.
On Friday, two of those BJP members resigned amid mounting anger over the rally.
“Yet again we’ve failed as a society,” Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar said in a Twitter message.
“Can’t think straight as more chilling details on little Asifa’s case emerges…her innocent face refuses to leave me. Justice must be served, hard and fast!”
Amid fears the case could escalate unrest in Kashmir where security forces are battling a long-running insurgency, separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq vowed to launch a mass agitation if any attempt was made to shield culprits or sabotage investigations.
Thousands of Kashmiris joined street protests in Srinagar this week, following the death of four protesters in a clash with security forces.
“MY HEART HURTS”
In the second case, federal police said began questioning a BJP member of the legislature of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh on Friday over the rape of a teenager in June last year.
A spokesman for the Central Bureau of Investigation – which took over the case this week after the state’s police were criticized for not acting quicker – said the lawmaker, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, had not been arrested.
Sengar’s lawyer has said his client was innocent and the case was a conspiracy to harm his political career.
Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi held a candlelit vigil at midnight on Thursday at India Gate in New Delhi, the same site where thousands of people demonstrated in 2012 against a brutal gang-rape in the capital.
“Like millions of Indians, my heart hurts tonight,” Gandhi wrote on Twitter after addressing an estimated crowd of 5,000 people at the event. “India simply cannot continue to treat its women the way it does.”
Meenakshi Lekhi, a senior BJP leader, accused Gandhi’s Congress party and other opposition groups of “playing politics”.
Ministers have said justice will be done no matter who committed the crime, while defending the government’s record on fighting violence against women.
Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, said her ministry planned to propose the death penalty for the rape of children younger than 12. The maximum punishment now is life imprisonment.
India registered about 40,000 rape cases in 2016, up from 25,000 in 2012, government data show. Rights activists say thousands more go unreported.