An Indian spiritual leader has sparked outcry by claiming the student raped and murdered in Delhi was partly responsible for what happened and should have pleaded with her attackers to leave her alone – the latest in a series of controversial comments campaigners say highlight a mindset within the heartland of India that permits such assaults to take place.
Speaking to followers in Rajasthan, Asaram Bapu, a self-styled guru, reportedly said the 23-year-old was “as guilty as her rapists”. He claimed: “The five or six drunken men were not the only ones guilty. The girl was also responsible... she should have called the culprits ‘brothers’ and begged them to stop.”
Mr Asaram has little international profile but he is far from an inconsequential figure. His comments echo those from a series of religious leaders and provincial politicians who wield significant influence in India, particularly in rural areas. While large groups of students gather in the city night after night calling for the attack to be a watershed in the way Indian society treats its women, there is an equally vocal and powerful lobby that believes it is women who need to change.
Despite this, Mr Asaram’s comments have been widely condemned, not least by the family of the student who was killed. “It is an absolutely illogical statement,” the woman’s brother told the Press Trust of India at the family home in Uttar Pradesh. “We had immense respect for Asaram Bapu and also have many books related to him but as soon as we get back to Delhi we will put them on [the] fire.”
Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based NGO, said the comments were indicative of attitudes in much of the country. “His is the deep-seated mentality which creates a culture and traditions that are oppressive to women. Now it’s coming into the open in a brazen way,” she said.
The comments of Mr Asaram followed remarks by male religious and political leaders that have created turmoil in the aftermath of the fatal attack. Indeed, there have been so many that one Indian newspaper, the Hindustan Times, featured a selection of them this week under the headline, “Most outrageous remarks on rape”.
Among the most controversial was the comment by a provincial minister from Chhattisgarh, Nanki Ram Kanwar, who said sexual assaults on women were taking place because “women’s stars are not in their favour”. He made the remark blaming astrology after allegations emerged that 11 tribal girls had been raped by a teacher in the state.
Another high-profile figure to create an outcry was Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu organisation that has links to India’s main opposition party, who suggested sexual assaults were caused by Western influences and did not happen in the “villages and forests of the country”.
Today, another political leader, Abu Azmi, said women were being attacked because they were wearing fewer clothes. “Women should not venture out with men who are not relatives,” said Mr Azmi, a politician from Maharashtra and a leader of the Samajwadi Party. “Incidents [such as the Delhi gang-rape] happen due to influence of Western culture,” he added.
According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, 24,206 rape cases were registered in India in 2011. Last week, it emerged that Indian politicians facing sexual assault charges could be suspended from office if the country’s highest court supports a petition submitted by activists. Six state politicians are facing rape prosecutions and two national politicians face other charges of crimes against women, Jagdeep Chhokar, an official with the Association for Democratic Reforms, said.
Aware of the mounting public anger, the major political parties have condemned the comments of Mr Asaram. But he has refused to back down and instead blamed the media. “The media has created a controversy but what did I say that was wrong?” he said. “One dog barked and [the media] joined in. Dogs will bark but they can’t harm an elephant’s dignity.”
Police have got the wrong men, says lawyer
A lawyer who says he has been retained to represent three of the suspects accused of brutally gang-raping a woman in Delhi has claimed they will plead not guilty and will tell the court the police have detained the wrong men.
Mohan Lal Sharma said he had been contacted by relatives to represent Ram Singh, Mukesh Singh and Akshay Thakur. He forwarded to The Independent legal documents that appeared to show the men had granted him the power of attorney.
“I believe they will be saying in court that they are not guilty,” said Mr Sharma. “I believe they are not the persons who did the rape.”