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‘Boys make mistakes’ – Indian politician’s comments reignite rape controversy

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav (right) waves to his supporters before filing his nomination for the upcoming general election at Mainpuri in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India, April 4, 2014.(Pawan Kumar/Reuters)

Indian politician Mulayam Singh Yadav is facing a media firestorm after saying that the death penalty for a rape is unfair, and that boys make mistakes.

Speaking in Hindi, Yadav began his comments about rape by saying that "when boys and girls have differences, the girl gives a statement that 'the boy raped me,' and that poor boy gets a death sentence."

At a rally in Moradabad, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, on Thursday, Yadav also said that if elected, his Samajwadi Party would attempt to repeal laws that sentence rapists to death, and punish those who lie in a rape case.

The comments come after a number of widely reported rape cases, starting with the one in December 2012, when a women was gang-raped in New Delhi, and later died from her injuries. The crime sparked protests and anger throughout the country, and led to a broader discussion of how women are treated in modern India. It helped lead to stricter anti-rape laws, though there has been little sign that the number of sexual assaults have decreased in the past year.

Across Indian media, the reaction to Yadav's comments has been largely negative. Zee Media called the comments "highly insensitive," while the Times of India said Yadav had sunk "to a new low" and that he was simply trying to woo voters. "I have thrown up several times due to bad food choices," Navadha Pandey wrote in a blog post for the Hindu Business Line. "But this is the first time that somebody’s thought process has made me hurl."

While his comments infuriated educated liberals, Yadav, a former Indian defense minister, appears to believe that the rape backlash has gone too far − or, more cynically, he may believe that his Samajwadi Party can gain traction with some voters by promising more lenient punishment for rapists.

Yadav's party is largely supported by the lower Hindu castes. Recently, he also has been trying to shore up his support with his party's longtime Muslim base in Uttar Pradesh, an electorally important state in the ongoing elections.

Despite the controversy, Yadav's comments paled in comparison to those made later made by a colleague. According to the Hindustan Times, Abu Azmi, another member of the Samajwadi Party, doubled down on the rhetoric. "Any woman if, whether married or unmarried, goes along with a man, with or without her consent, should be hanged," he reportedly said.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.

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