Hinduism is nothing if not spectacular. This week marked the start of the Kumbh Mela, a religious festival held once every 12 years, during which 100m pilgrims led by monks in silver chariots and naked holy men wielding tridents will plunge into the River Ganges at Allahabad to cleanse their sins.

These exuberant ceremonies, however, coincide with agonised introspection among middle-class Indians about the darker side of the country’s ancient cultures.

The trigger for this soul-searching was the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student who boarded a bus with a male friend one December evening in Delhi. The brutality of this crime and, above all, the bizarre reactions of some religious and political leaders to it, have exposed contradictions between old-fashioned beliefs about women and life in a modern city.

Asaram Bapu, a 73-year-old spiritual guru known as a “godman”, particularly incensed Delhi’s liberals with his suggestion the victim was as guilty as the rapists and should have invoked the name of God and appealed to them as her “religious brothers” to stop attacking her and eviscerating her with an iron bar. Mr Asaram, a former bicycle mechanic who sports an unkempt beard and has built a business empire, later apologised and said his remarks were “taken out of context”.

Even if Mr Asaram is dismissed as an eccentric, the same cannot be said of Mohan Bhagwat, head of the powerful Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Organisation of National Volunteers), a religious group seen as the parent of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party. Mr Bhagwat said (inaccurately) that such crimes were common in “India” – that is, the modern, urban parts of the country poisoned by western culture – but not in “Bharat”, the villages and rural areas. Far from being modernised, he said, attitudes to women should be “revisited in the context of ancient Indian values”.

As far as middle-class Indians are concerned, many politicians were no better, either ignoring the crime and the angry demonstrations on the streets of Delhi, making flippant remarks or suggesting in one case that schoolgirls should wear overcoats, be transported on special buses and be deprived of mobile telephones (probably the best safety device for single women). To liberals, tackling the victims rather than the perpetrators seemed as illogical as providing US schoolchildren with armoured backpacks instead of banning assault weapons after the school shooting in Connecticut. One state minister blamed the adverse positions of the stars for the victim’s fate. “We have no answer to this,” he was quoted as saying. “Only an astrologer can predict.”

The latest official rash enough to enter the debate was Satyapal Singh, Mumbai police commissioner, who opined this week that the real problem was sex education, which had promoted crimes against women and in the US had made rape more common than smoking.

The tweets from educated inhabitants of Delhi and Mumbai about such attitudes have grown exasperated, but there is a feeling that some good may yet come from the horrors of the rape case and the fast-tracked trial of the accused.

Foreigners sentimental about India’s tolerant mysticism have been given notice that the coy phrase “Eve-teasing” in Indian newspapers usually means gross sexual harassment and that there are good reasons – insults, groping and lustful stares – why the Delhi metro has separate carriages for women.

Middle-class Hindus have been reminded that even the wealthy would benefit from the rule of law, an efficient police force and a reliable justice system. And they must now be conscious that ignorance and sexism are not the preserve of extremist Muslims.

Ramachandra Guha, the Bangalore-based historian who says he was brought up in a home of broad-minded Hindus, notes that all but one of the correspondents who send him “Hindutva hate mail” are men.

His occasional articles on Hindu fundamentalism, he writes in his new book Patriots and Partisans, “have brought me into contact with a certain kind of Indian who gets up before dawn, has a glass of cow’s milk, prays to the sun god, and begins scanning cyber space for that day’s secular heresies”.

This article will attract, I fear, the same sort of opprobrium from the same sort of people. In spite of all the foolish words spoken about the Delhi gang-rape, they are reluctant to admit that there is bad as well as good in India’s traditions.

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