NEW DELHI • India's women's minister has called for the death penalty for child rapists as nationwide outrage mounts over the brutal gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, even as a lawmaker from India's ruling party was arrested in connection with the rape of a teenager.
Ms Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development, said on Friday that her ministry planned to propose the death penalty for the rape of children younger than 12. The maximum punishment now is life imprisonment.
"I have been deeply, deeply disturbed by the rape case in Kathua and all the recent rape cases that have happened on children," Ms Gandhi said on Twitter.
On Friday, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lawmaker in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was arrested in connection with a rape case involving a 17-year-old girl.
Said senior state police officer Rahul Srivastav: "He will be presented before the court and charges will be pressed on Saturday."
The rape case in the city of Unnao might never have seen the light of day had the alleged victim not tried to set fire to herself last week outside the residence of the Chief Minister in the state capital of Lucknow. She was stopped by guards, but the suicide attempt brought to public attention her accusations against Sengar, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party.
JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL
We are all ashamed as a society and a country. I want to assure the country that no criminal will be spared. Justice will be done and completed.
PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI
In a bizarre sequence of events, the girl's father died in police custody last week, fanning suspicion that Sengar was somehow involved. The girl's father, 55, had been beaten before being taken into custody following a complaint by his assailants. The girl tried to kill herself after her father died in custody.
What has angered India and, surely its women, is that the girl's family went to the police following her rape in June, but no case was filed.
Director-General of Police O.P. Singh, the most senior police officer in Uttar Pradesh, said that the police had launched an investigation into accusations that Sengar had played a role in the assault.
Police have suspended several officers in Unnao over the past few days pending investigations into their conduct, another senior police official said.
Campaign groups have called more rallies over the weekend, demanding justice for the teenage girl as well as for the eight-year-old Muslim girl who was gang raped and murdered in a Hindu-dominated area of Jammu and Kashmir.
Eight people have been arrested over the killing, including four police officers and a minor. All are Hindus.
The victim, whose identity was protected by a court order on Friday, was murdered in January near the town of Kathua. According to the charge sheet, she was abducted by the minor and an accomplice.
The girl was forced to take sedatives and, over five days in a shed and a Hindu temple, she was repeatedly raped by the juvenile and different men, including a police constable. She was finally strangled and beaten to death with a stone. According to the charge sheet, one of the attackers raped her just before she died.
Underlining the political and religious tensions over the case, some members of the ruling BJP joined a rally organised by a hardline Hindu group last week to show support for the eight Hindu men accused of the crime, including the priest of the temple.
On Friday, two of those BJP members resigned as anger mounted over the rally.
Amid fears the case could escalate unrest in Kashmir, where security forces are battling a long-running insurgency, separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has vowed to launch a mass agitation if any attempt was made to shield culprits or sabotage investigations.
Prime Minister Modi also promised justice on Friday after nationwide outrage mounted over the rapes.
"The incidents being discussed for the last two days are definitely shameful for any civil society. We are all ashamed as a society and a country," Mr Modi said in a speech in New Delhi.
"I want to assure the country that no criminal will be spared. Justice will be done and completed."
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, ASIA NEWS NETWORK