India’s Modi takes on rape issue in his first Independence Day speech

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks about women’s safety and urges parents to raise their sons properly during his speech on India’s 68th Independence Day on Friday. (Reuters)

Breaking his silence on the growing number of reports of sexual assaults against women, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday told parents to raise their sons properly during a wide-ranging and highly anticipated first Independence Day speech.

Although he spoke extensively about women’s safety during the election campaign, Modi had remained largely silent on the issue since assuming office in May. On Friday, he said stringent laws will address the crimes, but he also reminded families of their responsibility to raise their sons well.

“Today, as we hear about the incidents of rapes, our head hangs in shame,” Modi said. “I want to ask parents, when your daughter turns 10 or 12 years old, you ask: ‘Where are you going? When will you return?’ Do parents dare to ask their sons: ‘Where are you going? Why are you going? Who are your friends?’ After all, the rapist is also someone’s son. If only parents would decide to put as many restrictions on their sons as they do on their own daughters.”

Modi, who won a resounding victory in elections held in April and May, departed from the scripted speeches of his predecessors and spoke extemporaneously for an hour, without the usual bulletproof glass cage, at the 17th-century Mughal monument in New Delhi known as the Red Fort.

He asked Indian families to “stop killing daughters in the womb” in their desire for sons and scolded them for the growing imbalance in the country’s sex ratio.

Modi, 63, is the first prime minister to be born after India gained independence from Britain in 1947, and he spoke on a wide range of social and economic issues plaguing the country, calling for more school toilets, less trash and Chinese-style manufacturing to serve a global marketplace.

Having gained popularity as a tough economic modernizer in his previous role as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, Modi took over as prime minister with a promise to rehabilitate India’s ailing economy by boosting investment and jobs while curbing inflation and corruption.

On Friday, he called on global businesses to bring their factories to India.

“I tell the world: Come, make in India. Sell anywhere, but manufacture here. We have the skill and talent,” he said. “Our dream should be to see ‘Made in India’ signs in every corner of the world.”

Modi also promised to do away with the decades-old bureaucracy called the Planning Commission, a key relic of India’s socialist past, and replace it with an entity that fits the nation’s 21st-century economic aspirations.

He urged Indian companies and lawmakers to allocate more of their budgets to building separate school toilets for boys and girls.

In recent months, the practice of open defecation in villages has been cited in public debate as undermining women’s dignity and safety. Modi also cited the lack of separate school toilets as a primary reason for girls dropping out of school.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on the country's Independence Day in New Delhi, India, on Friday. India celebrates its 1947 independence from British colonial rule on Aug. 15. (Saurabh Das/Associated Press)

The best gift Indians can give Mohandas Gandhi, their revered leader from the freedom movement, he added, is to make cities and villages trash-free.

“You would wonder why I am talking about cleanliness and toilets from the Red Fort, but I speak from the heart,” he said.

The speech was widely hailed as pathbreaking.

“Modi signaled a radical shift by announcing the dismantling of institutions of the past. He chose not to project India as a social-welfare democracy but stressed that economic growth is the engine that will drive India,” said Manisha Priyam of the London School of Economics and Political Science. “He is not just talking about inviting foreign investment into India, he is saying he will ready India for business, too.”

Modi, who rose from humble beginnings as the son of a tea vendor, said he is “an outsider” to New Delhi and its elite lifestyles.

Nearly three months after he took office, his popularity has not waned. A national mood survey conducted by the polling agency Nielsen in collaboration with the Hindi channel ABP News on Thursday showed that about 63 percent of respondents think Modi is the best leader for the country, even though inflation and corruption remain concerns.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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