Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on Friday refused to apologize for controversial remarks in which he accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party of creating a culture of widespread sexual assault.
Gandhi fired back by accusing Modi and the BJP of trying to draw attention from serious issues by attacking him and distorting his words.
“Narendra Modi has said ‘Made in India,’ but nowadays wherever you look, it’s ‘Rape in India,’” Gandhi said at an election rally in Jharkhand on Thursday, riffing on Modi’s “Made in India” slogan promoting economic growth.
Gandhi went on to reference the case of BJP member Kuldeep Singh Sengar, who has been accused of not only raping a 19-year-old woman in Uttar Pradesh but attempting to kill the victim by staging a vehicle accident that severely injured her and killed two of her relatives. Indian federal investigators are looking into charges that Sengar and his associates made threatening statements to the woman and her family.
“Modi said ‘protect girls and educate them,’ but he didn’t say who their daughters should be protected from. Should they be protected from BJP MLAs?” Gandhi taunted, using the common abbreviation for Indian parliamentary representatives.
BJP parliamentarians responded with outrage, accusing Gandhi of “insulting India,” politicizing sexual assault, and even inviting rapes with the language he used. One particularly angry Indian citizen, a social worker named Mukesh Rajawat, filed charges of sedition against Gandhi in a magisterial court on Friday.
Several BJP representatives introduced motions on Friday to censure Gandhi, compel him to apologize, or expel him from the legislature. “People who make such remarks have no moral right to be a member of this house,” said one. Other BJP lawmakers interrupted the session repeatedly by taking up anti-Gandhi chants.
Gandhi responded by highlighting campaign footage from earlier in Modi’s political career when he described New Delhi as a “rape capital” but was not accused of “insulting India” by the BJP. He doubled down by demanding Modi apologize for fomenting violent unrest in northeastern India with his campaign tactics and “destroying India’s economy” with his policies.
The northeastern riots Gandhi referenced were sparked by a new immigration law criticized for excluding Muslims from the fast track to Indian citizenship. The unrest has grown so serious that the U.S. government issued a travel advisory for the region on Friday. Several protesters have been killed and injured in clashes with the police.
Modi’s critics say he campaigned strongly on women’s safety during the 2014 elections but has grown silent on the issue since then, even in the face of rising crime rates and horrific assaults like the gang rape and brutal murder of 23-year-old female veterinarian in Hyderabad last month.
Outrage swept India when the remains of the victim, who was strangled and set on fire by her assailants after they raped her, were discovered. The four perpetrators were arrested in early December but then shot dead by the police, ostensibly when they attempted to grab the guns of the police officers and make an escape while touring the crime scene under guard. Concerns about a possible extrajudicial execution were voiced, although the Indian public and the victim’s family were not uncomfortable with the outcome.