NEW DELHI - The Uttar Pradesh government, which last week announced a plan to name and shame sexual offenders to curb crimes, on Thursday (Oct 1) cut off access to a village where a teenager was allegedly gang-raped and imposed a ban on gatherings of more than five people amid growing national outrage.
The move was interpreted by the opposition as a means to stop Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka from visiting the victim's family.
The 19-year-old woman, from the downtrodden Dalit caste, died on Tuesday, two weeks after she was said to have been gang raped in the Hathras district of the state.
She was found bleeding and paralysed by her family on Sept 14 in fields near her home. Four upper caste men have been arrested in the case, with anger only growing after the police forcibly carried out a cremation without the family present.
Amid mounting criticism, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath tweeted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sought "strictest action" against the attackers a day before cutting off access to the village.
The Gandhi siblings were prevented from going to the village and detained as they were attempting to advance on foot after their vehicle had been stopped by the police on a highway connecting Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
Mr Gandhi said he was physically pushed to the ground by the police. The duo were taken back to Delhi.
In another twist, a senior police official drew criticism after he maintained the woman had not been gang-raped.
Investigations are also ongoing for a second case involving a 22-year-old woman from the Dalit caste who died on Tuesday as well after she was allegedly gang-raped.
Sexual crimes against women remain a real area of concern for India, which is struggling to provide a safe environment for women and girls.
India recorded 405,861 cases of crime against women in 2019, an increase of 7.3 per cent over 2018, according to latest data released Tuesday by the National Crime Record Bureau.
Uttar Pradesh, which has the country's highest population, registered the highest number of crimes against women, including children, with 59,853 cases.
The state's action to curb sexual crime has remained patchy even as law and order issues have remained a challenge for successive governments.
In 2017, the Chief Minister deployed hundreds of police squads named anti-Romeo squads, targeting young men loitering outside women's colleges, schools and public spaces in a measure meant to protect women from sexual harassment. In India men who harass women on the road are called Romeos.
Yet the action attracted criticism for moral policing after the squads went after couples among others. Punishments have been meted out on the spot, including shaving the heads of those caught harassing women.
The authorities, who also say the anti-Romeo squads have been a success, said that the name and shame action would "instil confidence" among women.
The plan is to put up posters, which include pictures of sexual offenders and those out on bail, at street crossings and other prominent places. Local women police will identify the offenders.
"Their parents will be contacted... so that they don't repeat the offence," said additional chief secretary Avinash Kumar Awasthi.
Activists in the field of women's rights maintained it would have little impact and said the government needed to take stronger measures to curb crimes against women.
"The law dictates that you are innocent unless proven guilty. Posters don't scare people," said Dr Ranjana Kumari, director for the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, who called it a half-baked idea.
"What needs to be done is that the police must act as enforcers. You have to do away with impunity by giving the message it (sexual crimes) will not be tolerated. That you will be caught and punished. And it is important to create gender sensitisation programmes for the young in school."
Mr Shravan Kumar Singh, an Uttar Pradesh-based activist, said only the family would suffer.
"This is wrong. Many cases are also coming up where false cases are registered. So it's not fair. Only the family will suffer because people will target them."
Crimes against women are a problem not just for Uttar Pradesh.
Across India, victims and their families are often hesitant to approach the police and courts for fear of reprisal and stigma.
They also struggle to get justice as court cases can take years, with the problem exacerbated by poor investigation and low conviction rates.
The inherent problems in the system have even seen support from sections of the populace for extrajudicial killings against those accused of heinous sexual crimes.
Sexual crimes came into sharp focus after the fatal gang-rape of a physiotherapy student in a moving bus in Delhi in 2012.
The woman died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital.
Massive street protests forced the government to change laws, including introducing the death penalty for serial rapists. Four men convicted of the crime were hanged in March this year, seven years after the gang rape.
Activists said that not much had changed for the safety of women in spite of the sporadic focus on crimes against women.
"Priority has to be on punishment ASAP (as soon as possible). Punishment should be within six months. It should not drag on. If they give that message in this case, it will be a deterrent," said Ms Yogita Bhayana founder of People Against Rape in India, a campaign.