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In December 2012, a 20-year-old student was gang-raped on a Delhi bus, suffering such savage internal injuries that she died two weeks later. Afterwards, Indians united in grief and anger to decry a lack of safety for women in public places — forcing the government to toughen its rape laws. 

This year, India has once again been shaken by a heinous rape — this time of an eight-year-old girl from a semi-nomadic tribe of shepherds in the northern Jammu region. Police say she was drugged and repeatedly raped in a temple for nearly a week and then killed and dumped in a forest. 

The crime has divided a society that is already fracturing along religious and community lines. The girl, Asifa, was Muslim; the seven men accused of her rape and murder are Hindus. 

Police say the assault was intended to intimidate the girl’s community of Bakarwals — or herders — and drive them from the Hindu-dominated area where they graze their animals in winter. Local Hindus have rallied in support of the accused, claiming they are being “framed”. In mid-February, thousands marched in their defence under the banner of the newly formed Hindu Ekta Manch, or Hindu Unity Forum — led by Vijay Singh, a local leader of prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party. 

At a subsequent rally, two BJP members of the Jammu and Kashmir state cabinet also denounced the men’s arrests. This month, police trying to register formal charges in the case were barred by Hindu lawyers from entering the courthouse.

The popular support and political patronage for men accused of killing a child to terrorise her community has struck many Indians as almost as appalling as the crime itself. In an open letter to Mr Modi, 49 top retired bureaucrats wrote that the “bestiality and the barbarity” of the crime reflects “the depths of depravity” into which India has sunk. “In post-independence India, this is our darkest hour,” they wrote. 

The case is not an isolated one. In the state of Uttar Pradesh — now under a BJP government led by Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath, a powerful BJP state legislator and his aides were accused of raping a 17-year-old girl last year. The family say police refused to file a complaint, prompting the girl to try to immolate herself outside Mr Adityanath’s residence in early April. 

The matter made headlines this month after the girl’s father was arrested and died in police custody soon afterwards. The Central Bureau of Investigation is acting; the legislator and his brother have been arrested. 

Mr Modi made women’s safety — or the lack of it — a major issue in his bid for national power in 2014, when memories of the Delhi bus rape were still raw. In one stark BJP campaign advertisement, a woman spoke of “living in fear” until her daughter returned from work at night, saying, “you who fail to keep our daughters safe, the public will not forgive you”.

As prime minister, Mr Modi has denounced the practice of sex-selective abortions to ensure sons, launching a campaign called “Save daughters; educate daughters”. He has spoken about female empowerment, most recently in his monthly national radio address, when he called for women to participate more fully in India’s social and economic life. 

But as his first term as prime minister draws to a close — with a series of important state elections and then national polls in 2019, BJP regional leaders and activists have begun stirring communal tension in order to rally Hindu voters. In the southern state of Karnataka, Sanjay Patil, a BJP legislator, was recently caught on camera telling supporters that next month’s state election was “not about roads or water but a battle of Hindus versus Muslims”. 

Fanning the flames of communal enmity is a dangerous game in a region that has a history of men taking out their anger against rival religious or caste groups on women’s bodies — considered the symbolic repository of a community’s “honour”. Amid the outrage over the recent atrocity, Mr Modi has promised “justice” for the victims. But his silence about the proliferation of hate speech in public discourse, often fuelled by his own supporters, bodes badly for the women he once vowed to protect. 

In a climate of growing communal hatred, deepening social divisions and disintegrating law and order, India’s daughters will pay a heavy price.


Letter in response to this column:

Indian politicians must send out tough message on rape cases / From Professor Lyla Mehta and others

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