India's appalling treatment of women is enabled by a culture of impunity

Narendra Modi must lead the crackdown against the law breakers in his own party and beyond

India's laws against sexual violence are meaningless as long as the squalid tradition of granting impunity to the rich and the powerful is not uprooted. Money Sharma / AFP
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There were 40,000 cases of rape registered by the Indian police in 2016. Nearly half of the victims were children. These figures reveal a profound sickness at the heart of Indian society when it comes to women. The public outcry that followed the gang rape of a student in Delhi in 2012 prompted the government of the time to strengthen the laws against rape and sexual assault. But as we have witnessed over the past two weeks, laws are meaningless as long as the squalid tradition of granting impunity to the rich and the powerful remains. In January, a girl aged eight was abducted, tortured, raped and murdered in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet despite the heinousness of the crime, the men alleged to have perpetrated it received protection and support from the authorities. Government ministers from the Bharatiya Janata Party led sectarian public rallies in support of the accused. In Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, a BJP lawmaker accused of raping a 16-year-old girl last year was only arrested after a massive public outcry.

India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, was compelled to break his strange and inexplicable silence as protests against rape erupted across the country. Mr Modi pledged to transform India for the better when he came to power. Over the past four years, he has introduced such bold and controversial measures as demonetisation and a nationwide goods and services tax. But Mr Modi's modernisation efforts have been accompanied by growing intolerance. And the forces responsible for the latter phenomenon are often influential members of his own political party. Mr Modi wants India to play a leading role on the world stage. That cause is not helped by his silence whenever religious minorities or women are victimised in India. It is time for Mr Modi to speak up – and to crack down. It is now the prime minister's duty to tear down the culture of impunity that has shielded generations of politicians and celebrities from the law. Mr Modi should begin with his own party.