India’s new leader marked his first Independence Day in power Friday with a strongly worded speech urging the nation to confront the issue of rape following a series of highly publicized assaults.
“When we hear about incidents of rape, our heads hang in shame,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared, standing on the fortifications of the iconic Red Fort in New Delhi before about 10,000 people.
“I want to ask every mother and father: You ask your daughters, ‘Where are you going, who are you going with?' But do you ever ask your sons these questions? After all, those who rape are also someone's son.”
India has been roiled by a series of rapes, particularly the December 2012 gang assault on a New Delhi bus of a 23-year-old woman who later died from her injuries and an attack the following year on a photojournalist in her early 20s as she photographed an abandoned textile mill in Mumbai.
Those assaults and others sparked widespread demonstrations, new laws, fast-track courts and more female police officers.
Modi, who took office May 26, also raised the issue of female feticide, appealing to the doctors “not to kill the girl-child in the mother's womb. I request the parents not to kill the girl-child because they want a son.”
Modi, who has been accused of promoting right-wing Hindu fundamentalism in a nation often marred by violence between Hindus and Muslims, also urged the nation to focus on nonviolence and growth.
“Communalism and caste violence are obstacles to India's growth,” he said. “Give up the path of violence, think of brotherhood, and work for the country.”
Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to victory in India's parliamentary elections in May, ousting the long-ruling Congress Party, despite accusations from critics that he either stood by or actively supported Hindu mobs that attacked Muslims during riots in 2002. The violence left at least 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.
During his hourlong speech, Modi asserted the importance of sanitation, a perennial problem in poorer areas of India, invoking the name of independence fighter Mahatma Gandhi five years ahead of the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.
“I don't know whether people will appreciate me talking about dirt and toilets from Red Fort, but I come from a poor family,” he said. “All schools should have toilets. There should be separate toilets for schools. I urge all MPs to spend one year's funds to construct toilets.
“Gandhi emphasized cleanliness,” he added. “In 2019, ensuring cleanliness will be the most fitting tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary.”
Modi, the son of a tea vendor, also spoke of plans to provide bank accounts to those who fall into the grip of moneylenders.
“Today our farmer commits suicide because he cannot repay his debt,” he said. “We want to integrate the poorest of the poor with bank accounts.”
Every year, India’s prime minister addresses the nation from Red Fort at the dawn of Independence Day. Modi, 63, became the first prime minister born after the nation gained independence from Britain in 1947 to mark the occasion.
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.