Indian federal police on Friday began questioning a legislator from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party accused of raping a teenager nine months ago, after the country’s main opposition party held a midnight vigil demanding justice.
The vigil led by Congress president Rahul Gandhi also gave vent to outrage over another attack, the alleged rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in a Hindu-dominated area of Jammu and Kashmir state in January.
Horrifying details were released in a charge sheet filed by police earlier this week, raising the risk of escalating civil unrest in a region where security forces are fighting separatist militants.
“Like millions of Indians, my heart hurts tonight,” Gandhi wrote on Twitter after addressing an estimated 5,000 people at the candlelight vigil at India Gate war memorial.
“India simply cannot continue to treat its women the way it does.”
The rape case involving a lawmaker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has given opposition parties ammunition to attack its administration of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous and crime-ridden state.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the case after the state’s police were heavily criticized for not acting sooner on the victim’s complaint.
A CBI spokesman said Kuldeep Singh Sengar, a longstanding member of the state legislature, was being questioned on Friday in relation to the rape in the city of Unnao. He has not been arrested.
Sengar’s lawyer has said his client, whose election affidavit in 2017 put his age at 50, was innocent and the case was a conspiracy to harm his political career.
Ministers have insisted that justice will be done no matter who committed the crime, while defending the government’s record on fighting violence against women.
“We are here to safeguard the interest of our daughters, they are the daughters of the nation,” federal minister Mahesh Sharma told reporters.
Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, said her department planned to propose the death penalty for rape of children under 12.
The maximum punishment under the current Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act is life imprisonment.
The death of a young woman following a brutal gang rape in Delhi in 2012 sparked an outpouring of national shame and anger, forcing the then Congress-led government to tighten laws on crimes against women.
The latest crime records show India registered about 40,000 rape cases in 2016, compared with 25,000 cases in 2012.
Rights activists say thousands more go unreported because of the stigma.