Thousands of Indians have taken to the streets to join nationwide protests against continuing sexual assaults of women and girls, including that of an eight-year-old girl who was gang-raped and brutally murdered inside a temple in Jammu area of Indian-administered Kashmir.
“Punish the guilty” was the rallying cry on Sunday in New Delhi, Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore and other cities, according to India’s NDTV.
“Small little girls are being raped every day and the way this time it has happened, that people actually came and supported these rapists, this is (new) heights and this is the time that we should take it as an alarm,” Ved Amrita, a protester in New Delhi, told Associated Press news agency.
Asifa Bano, from the Bakerwal Muslim community, was gang-raped and murdered in Kathua district near Jammu, her case causing public outrage after lawyers tried to prevent state police from filing a charge sheet last week.
The girl was heavily sedated, kept in a Hindu temple, and gang-raped by at least three men over the course of four days in mid-January, the police said in the charge sheet made public on Tuesday.
She was later strangled, and her body was found in the forest near the temple. One of the three suspected rapists was a policeman.
Leaders from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including two ministers from the Jammu and Kashmir government, organised rallies in defence of the accused. The ministers were forced to resign on Saturday amid widespread public anger.
In another case, a legislator from the BJP was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in June last year in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh.
Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a 50-year-old member of the Uttar Pradesh state legislative assembly, was arrested on Saturday following public outcry. Sengar is accused of abducting and raping the teenage girl.
In both cases, the police have been criticised for being slow to investigate, while the government has been slammed for protecting the accused.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised justice for both rape victims, but critics said it was “too little, too late”. Modi’s BJP party controls the government both in Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh.
The body of another girl who had been raped was found in Surat, Gujarat state, on April 9. Police said on Sunday that they had not yet been able to establish the identity of the young girl, whose body with “86 injury marks” was found in the city’s suburbs.
Many protesters expressed particular anger at India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party for initially siding with the accused in the Kashmir case. The young victim was Muslim while the accused are Hindu.
Vishal Dadlani, an Indian singer and composer who joined the protests in the northern city of Chandigarh, told Times Now broadcaster: “As long as there are people in power who protect rapists, this will never stop.”
He also called for the creation of fast-track courts dedicated to dealing with rape cases.
The Unnao victim tried to commit suicide outside Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s residence last Sunday, after inaction over the complaint she had filed, alleging that Sengar had raped her.
Instead of acting on the complaint, the police picked up the girl’s father and assaulted him in custody. He died after the incident, NDTV reported.
A total of at least nine suspects, including the BJP legislator and four police officials, have been arrested in the two cases.
Crimes against women have been on the rise despite tough laws enacted in 2013 in the wake of the horrific gang rape of a New Delhi woman and her subsequent death in 2012. The 2012 gang rape had triggered massive protests across the country.
Under the new legislation, prison terms for rapists were doubled to 20 years and voyeurism, stalking and the trafficking of women were criminalised as well.
According to National Crime Records Bureau data for 2016, incidents of the rape of children in India increased by over 82 percent compared with 2015.