NEW DELHI — It was supposed to be the high point of her speech – to applause from her audience, a leading member of India's ruling Congress Party suggested that a rival leader be raped so she can understand the plight of rape victims.
The remark by Rita Bahuguna Joshi on Wednesday drew outrage: within hours her house was burned down by protesters. On Thursday, she was put behind bars for 14 days pending investigations.
But none of it is likely to end Joshi's career in the rough-and-tumble of Indian politics where such crass comments and personal attacks are not unusual. The Congress party said it "regrets the personal elements" in Joshi's comments but added there was no question of firing her.
"By and large, politicians in India are known for their obscene comments and remarks. It is growing. In the last election we heard much more comments that were not in parliamentary language," said Ranjana Kumari, a social commentator.
Joshi's comments – targeting Uttar Pradesh state's chief executive Mayawati who uses only one name – may have been meant to score political points. But it took on casteist color as she was arrested for insulting a person of lower-caste, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in jail, in addition to a minor charge of "insulting a woman's modesty."
The charge demonstrates that deep divisions remain entrenched in modern India – on the basis of caste, religion, language and even physical features – even as it tries to claim a high place on the world economic stage.
Joshi, a 60-year-old veteran who belongs to the top Brahmin caste, said her comments were taken out of context and apologized immediately.
While speaking about the law and order situation in Uttar Pradesh and the increasing number of rapes in the state, Joshi cited a few cases in which some women were paid 25,000 rupees ($520) compensation after being raped.
Joshi said simply compensating the women with money was not enough. Women who are 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 ($210,000),'" she said. The speech was broadcast by several television networks.
Mayawati heads the Bahujan Samaj Party that draws its support from members of the lower caste who for centuries have been treated with disdain and contempt by the upper three castes, but more so by Brahmins.
A historically disadvantaged people, the lower castes have gained enormous political clout in recent years by banding together during elections and voting along caste lines. The strategy brought Mayawati to power in Uttar Pradesh in May 2007.
Kumari, the social scientist, noted that politicians have increasingly used caste as an easy way to garner votes instead of "working hard for the people."
"Politics of caste is being reinforced continuously. It is harming the society by polarizing it, dividing it," she said.
"It works at counter-purposes in a democratic society. ... It is breaking the society from within," said Kumari, the director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research that mostly handles women's issues.
Joshi said she was only trying to "expose a chief minister who has no sympathy for women."
"I regret what I said in a fit of anger. If it is being misconstrued, if it's being misinterpreted, it is being taken out of context, then I regret it," she said.
Mayawati called Joshi's comments "extremely objectionable and vulgar." But she may have been equally guilty. In January 2007, Mayawati had used almost exactly the same words by saying that the nieces of another political archrival could be given monetary compensation if they were raped.
On Thursday, police arrested five people for allegedly setting fire to Joshi's house and four cars. Additional Director General of Police Brij Lal said the five were "hoodlums" and not connected to any political party.