NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - An Indian female politician and activist has said rape victims may have invited attacks by their clothes and behaviour, fuelling a national debate over a series of incidents of sexual violence against women.
Asha Mirje, a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader in western Maharashtra state, questioned at a meeting on Tuesday why a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi in 2012 was out late at night.
The student died of her injuries and thousands of people took to the streets in nationwide protests against the prevalence of rape and sexual assault in the world's largest democracy.
A number of shocking incidents have since been highlighted in Indian media, most recently the case of 20-year-old woman who said she was gang-raped in a rural area of West Bengal in eastern India on the orders of a village court last week.
Mirje, who is a member of the state women's commission, said in reference to the Delhi assault: "Did Nirbhaya really have go to watch a movie at 11 in the night with her friend?" "Nirbhaya", a Hindi word meaning "fearless", has been widely adopted by the Indian media as a name for the victim.
She also commented on the gang rape of a photojournalist who was on assignment at a disused mill in Mumbai last year, asking why the victim had gone to such an isolated place.
"Rapes take place also because of a woman's clothes, her behaviour and her presence at inappropriate places," she said.
Women must be "careful", she said, and think if they are inviting assault.
Sexual violence has become a huge social and political issue since the Delhi rape and India toughened laws on sex crimes in March last year. Public anger over the poor state of women's safety in Delhi was one reason that the ruling Congress Party was wiped out in local elections in the city last month.
Mirje's party belongs to the Congress-led national coalition government and her comments caused an immediate stir, with several television reports pouring scorn on her.
"Every time such a statement is made by a public figure it justifies rape," Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, a lobby group, told Reuters.
"It's unconscionable that people in public posts make such remarks." While Mirje is thought to be the first senior female public figure to make such comments about the Delhi rape, other members of commissions looking after women's affairs have made similar remarks about less high-profile attacks.
"Mirje is reflecting what is a much larger problem. There are many others who hold such views," Krishnan said.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, initially dismissed a gang rape in her state in 2012 as a fabricated incident aimed at tarnishing her government.
Assaults have tarnished the reputation of a country that has enjoyed growing prosperity in the past decade and is modernising fast. Still, Mirje's comments were a reminder that conservative and traditional mores are still deeply held by many of its 1.2 billion people, women as well as men.
In the most recent case involving a foreigner, a 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang-raped in the back-packers' district of Delhi last month by men she asked for directions to her hotel.