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Schoolgirls holding placards sit in a road during a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, near Jammu, a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, and an eleven-year-old girl in Surat, Gujarat, in Srinagar April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Ismail(reuters_tickers)
By Simon Cameron-Moore and Sanjeev Miglani
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - As India's rape epidemic gets worse by the year, critics have pointed fingers at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government for not doing enough to protect the country's women.
During the past week, his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been battered by a nationwide storm over two rapes.
One involved the abduction, gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl by Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir state, where two BJP ministers in the provincial government were forced to resign after initially offering support for the accused rapists. Eight men are on trial for the crime, which has led to a wave of revulsion and anger in the country.
In the other case, a BJP legislator in Uttar Pradesh state, India's most populous, stands accused of raping a teenager.
When Modi came to office in 2014, he coined the slogan "save our daughters, teach our daughters", but right now that message is ringing hollow.
Nearly 40 percent of India's rape victims are children. And the 40,000 reported rapes in 2016 marked a 60 percent increase over the level in 2012 - the year that a sickening rape and murder of a 23-year-old student in the capital New Delhi sparked nationwide demonstrations.
Yet, by the time Modi addressed the outrage over the latest rapes last week by promising justice regardless of whoever the guilty were, critics had already hammered the prime minister for his silence.
The economy and increasing intolerance towards religious minorities are expected to be the main issues for a general election due by next year and Modi remains a frontrunner with a splintered opposition struggling to narrow the distance.
But analysts foresaw the opposition Congress and regional parties tapping a well of discontent over the BJP's weak response to the rapes, especially among better informed urban voters.
"There will be political fallout, every party will go to town over it," said Neera Chowdhury, a political columnist, describing Modi's hesitancy to speak out on cases involving his own party members as "most worrying".
With Modi away on an official visit to Europe that began on Tuesday, the criticism has been mounting.
In an open letter published on Tuesday, Yashwant Sinha, a member of the BJP's old guard and frequent critic of Modi's government, beseeched the prime minister to speak and act more forcibly on vital issues, including the appalling rapes.
"Women are more unsafe today than ever before," wrote Sinha, a finance and foreign minister in earlier BJP governments.
"Rapes have become the order of the day and instead of acting strictly against the rapists we have become their apologists. In many cases, our own people are involved in these heinous crimes."
A day earlier, 50 retired civil servants, including ambassadors, police chiefs and senior bureaucrats, several of them known for taking stands against the BJP government, sent their own letter castigating the party.
Vappala Balachandran, a former top police officer in the western state of Maharashtra, was one of the signatories. Speaking to Reuters, he singled out Modi for failing "to set the moral tone" once details of the rapes in Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh states came to light.
"Rapes have happened under every government and will continue to happen but you expect a leader to speak out," said Balachandran.
In Uttar Pradesh, the rape victim attempted to set fire to herself outside the state BJP chief minister's residence to get police to investigate her accusations against a BJP lawmaker, after being ignored for nine months.
Speculation was gathering, according to a BJP official in the state capital Lucknow, that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath could be asked to resign to soothe public anger over the handling of the case. A ruling party spokesman declined to comment on the speculation.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the communal dimension of the case could spoil the BJP's relations with the mainly Muslim party that it shares power with in the state, and pose a security risk in a region disputed with Pakistan and ravaged by a long-running Muslim militant insurgency.
EXTENDING DEATH PENALTY?
Laying all blame for the rape crisis at the door of the BJP government is obviously unfair, but critics of the right-wing conservative party and its Hindutva or Hindu nationalist agenda accuse it of pandering to backward attitudes that suppress women.
The opposition Congress party has seized on the public revulsion over the rapes. Its leader Rahul Gandhi led the first protest, with a candlelight vigil at India Gate, the war memorial at the centre of the capital where mass crowds had gathered to demonstrate their disgust and shame after the rape in 2012.
The protests this time have been on a smaller scale. Chowdhury, the columnist, said this was partly due to the absence of people who would be typical BJP supporters.
"It's strange and curious the women of the BJP who take up cudgels often, who are the champions of women causes, are quiet. Why? Because the child was Muslim? I'd like to think not," she said.
How the BJP responds to the public's demands for action is unclear, although Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, has advocated applying the death penalty for rape cases where the victim is under 12 years old. Currently the Supreme Court reserves the death penalty for extreme cases.
On Sunday, police in Modi's home state of Gujarat found the body of a young girl who had been tortured and raped before being strangled to death, the latest case to be publicised.
In response, Anand Mahindra, the chairman of one of India's leading automobile companies, said in a tweet:
"The job of executioner is not an aspirational job. But for the execution of brutal rapists & murderers of young girls I would volunteer unhesitatingly."
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)