Author: By Andrew Buncombe in Delhi
In a dramatic series of events that highlight the tense political rivalry in India’s most populous state, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, Congress’s leader in Uttar Pradesh state, was placed in custody for 14 days after she made a speech in which she criticised chief minister Mayawati’s policy towards rape victims. Her house in the state capital, Lucknow, was set ablaze, apparently by members of Mayawati’s own party.
Ms Joshi’s speech had been about the notorious law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh and the increasing number of rapes being reported. She said that in some cases women were being paid compensation of 25,000 rupees (£310) by the state authorities after being attacked.
Criticising the policy in front of a meeting of party workers, she said giving money to such victims was not sufficient. In her speech, broadcast by several television channels, she said that women who had been raped should “throw the money at Mayawati’s face and tell her ‘You should also be raped and I will give you 10 million rupees’.”
Within hours of making her comments, Ms Joshi was arrested in the early hours of yesterday morning on the outskirts of Delhi. She was told she was being charged with making provocative statements that create “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will” between people of different castes or communities.
Having allegedly insulted the Dalit leader, she has been also charged under a law that prohibits making offensive statements against people of lower castes. Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables, are at the very bottom of India’s caste system.
Last night, Ms Joshi said she had only been trying to “expose a chief minister who has no sympathy for women”. She added: “I regret what I said in a fit of anger. If it is being misconstrued, if it’s being misinterpreted… then I regret it. I am myself a woman and I should not have spoken these words.
While Ms Joshi’s colleagues claimed the incident highlighted the “law of the jungle” in Uttar Pradesh, the row also underlines the bitter rivalry between the Congress and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the aftermath of this year’s general elections. Mayawati’s party had expected to increase its number of MPs, and she had even been touted as a possible prime minister. However, in the final reckoning, it was the Congress party that increased its haul in the state while the BSP effectively remained stagnant.
Once the champion of the underdog, Mayawati has been heavily criticised for erecting self-aggrandising statues of herself around the state at great public expense. And her management has also come under attack. Earlier this year, the National Commission for Women wrote to her to express its concern over the rising number of attacks on women in Uttar Pradesh. According to the commission, the number of rape cases was up by a third in the past five years, and the state now had the highest number in India.
Yesterday the 53-year-old denied that her workers had been responsible for the fire at Ms Joshi’s house and publicly urged her supporters to maintain peace, saying the “extremely objectionable and vulgar language” should not be used as a pretext for violence.
Yet she also criticised Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi for her silence following Ms Joshi’s speech. She even blamed Congress for setting fire to her rival’s house. “The manner in which Sonia Gandhi has failed to chastise her and has chosen to remain silent arouses suspicion that whatever this woman did was on the direction of the Congress high command only,” she said. “I have a feeling that the attack has been stage-managed by the Congress party itself.”
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