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India's new Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley speaks during a news conference in Srinagar June 15, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Ismail(reuters_tickers)
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley faced criticism on Friday for making light of the gang rape of a Delhi woman in 2012 and her subsequent death by saying it was a small incident that had cost India billions of dollars in tourism.
Jaitley, who is also defence minister and a key lieutenant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, denied he was trying to lessen the magnitude of the crime which shook the country and turned the spotlight on women's safety.
"I am sensitive to these issues myself, no question of trivialising any incident," he said after his comments sparked outrage including from the victim's mother, who said politicians had a tendency to forget.
Five men and a teenager lured the 23-year-old physiotherapist and a male friend into an unlicensed bus and repeatedly raped and tortured her. She later died of her injuries, provoking an outpouring of anger and soul-searching about the place of women in Indian society.
Four men have been sentenced to death while a fifth suspect committed suicide. The teenager was remanded to a judicial reform centre.
While laws relating to assault on women have since been toughened, the crime also exposed social attitudes in a country where the victim has often ended up being found responsible.
Jaitley, addressing a conference of state tourism ministers, said improving law and order was necessary to help bring visitors to India.
"One small incident of rape in Delhi advertised world over is enough to cost us billions of dollars in terms of global tourism," he said.
The assault and several similar attacks in Delhi and around the country have helped reinforce the image of India as unsafe for women visitors.
About 50 members of the youth wing of the main opposition Congress shouted slogans against Jaitley outside the office of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The victim's mother said the government minister's remarks had hurt her greatly.
"When they needed votes, they would take my daughter's name and that such a big incident had happened. But once they got into power, they call it a small thing."
(This story was refiled to fix spelling in paragraph 5)
(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and Rajesh Kumar Singh; Editing by Nick Macfie)