India's Modi urges lawmakers to stop 'politicising rape'

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged lawmakers on Wednesday to work together to protect women in his first comments on the issue since the horrific gang-rape and lynching of two girls last month.

Mr Modi warned lawmakers against "politicising rape", saying they were "playing with the dignity of women" in his first speech to parliament since sweeping to power at last month's elections.

Mr Modi singled out the rape and murder of the two girls in Uttar Pradesh, where a political row has erupted as anger mounts over the state government's handling of the attacks.

He said lawmakers must work to end attacks, which women's groups claim have reached "epidemic" levels despite mass protests over the fatal gang-rape of a student in Delhi in Dec 2012.

"Governments will have to work strictly against this, else our own souls will not forgive us," Mr Modi told parliament as lawmakers thumped their desks in agreement.

"That's why I appeal to all state ministers, all ministers please stop politicising rape." "Does it suit us to make comments on such incidents, can we not be quiet?

"We are playing with the dignity of women."

"Respect for women, their security - it should be the priority for all 1.2 billion people." The appeal comes after a string of politicians including from his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made controversial comments over the attacks on the two girls which further inflamed public anger.

A minister from central Chhattisgarh state said on the weekend that "these kind of incidents happen accidentally".

Last week, a minister from Madhya Pradesh state said rapes were "sometimes right, sometimes wrong".

The girls, aged 14 and 12, were found hanging from a mango tree in their impoverished village with tests showing they had been raped multiple times.

Their families claimed police initially failed to take action because they were from a low caste.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, already under fire over his handling of the gang-rape of the girls, accused the families on the weekend of coming under the influence of a rival political party, a claim they have denied.

The head of Uttar Pradesh's ruling party, who is also the chief minister's father, sparked uproar during the election campaign when he said rapists should not receive the death penalty because "boys will be boys".

India toughened its laws on sex attacks in the wake of the 2012 gang-rape of the student on a bus in Delhi which triggered outrage, but they have done little to stem the tide of sex attacks.

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