By Frank Jack Daniel and Satarupa Bhattacharjya
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Comments by an Indian spiritual leader that a gang-rape victim shared blame for her assault disgusted many in a country shaken by the crime, but his view represents a deep streak of chauvinism shared by a broad swathe of a society in transition.
The 23-year-old physiotherapy student and a male companion were left bleeding on a highway after she was raped and beaten on a moving bus in New Delhi on December 16. She died two weeks later in a Singapore hospital from internal injuries.
"Guilt is not one-sided," the guru, Asaram Bapu, told followers this week, adding that if the student had pleaded with her six attackers in God's name, and told them she was of the "weaker sex", they would have relented.
Such views have caused outrage among India's growing urban middle class.
Protesters burned effigies of the yoga guru near his headquarters in western India, media reported, and Twitter exploded with posts calling him "medieval" and a "misogynist".
But he is not alone.
Similar opinions are being expressed by leaders in the mainstream of society, not just on the fringes.
Some politicians have called on schoolgirls not to wear skirts and told women to dress soberly and not venture out at night.
Before last month's gang rape caused shockwaves, it was common for police to point the finger of blame in sex crime cases at women's clothing, or the fact that they worked alongside men.
Such views are not unique to India but they point to growing discomfort among some conservatives about a perceived erosion of traditional values in fast-changing cities where Western ways are gaining popularity.
President Pranab Mukherjee's son described women who protested against violence in New Delhi's streets in the days after the rape as "dented and painted". He said the protests had "very little connection with ground reality".
New Delhi and other cities have seen a considerable crumbling of caste and gender barriers over the past decade, creating more opportunities for social mobility and a more open culture with women playing a larger role.
But just a few miles from the capital, village councils with the power to set local laws made headlines last year by banning women from using mobile phones and wearing jeans.
A global poll of experts last year by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, showed India to be the worst place among G20 countries to be a woman.
Activists say most sex crimes in India go unreported, and official data show that almost all go unpunished. Reported rape cases rose nearly 17 percent between 2007 and 2011.
BHARAT VS INDIA
In many ways, the rape victim represented the new India.
Her family moved to New Delhi from rural Uttar Pradesh state when she was small. Her parents encouraged her to study and she worked in a call centre for a U.S. company to fund her education.
"How will they progress without freedom? They should study well and progress in life," the victim's father told Reuters when asked in a telephone interview if he regretted giving his children the opportunity to work and study.
The case ignited fierce protests against the government and police for their perceived failure to protect women from violence.
The leader of a Hindu nationalist organization that wields influence over the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party said that gang rape and sex crimes need to be punished harshly but they were a problem in urban India, not in Bharat.
Bharat is the Sanskrit name for the Indian subcontinent, often used as shorthand for the Hindu heartland. The name India is seen by some as a relic of British rule representing Western influence.
"This is happening in India and it's increasing and very dangerous. But such things don't happen in Bharat," Mohan Bhagwat, leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said on Friday.
"Where there's no India, but only Bharat, you should go and check, this doesn't happen," he told supporters.
His opinions clash with the facts. The National Commission for Women has documented a pattern of gang rape and sexual humiliation of lower caste women in rural India.
Bhaskara Rao, who heads a New Delhi-based policy think tank, said Bhagwat's comments reflected a society in transition.
"The people who are there in the police, judiciary, politics, they are old minds trying to deal with new problems," Rao said.
Women politicians such as West Bengal state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee have also invited controversy with their comments about rape. Last year, Banerjee said rape cases were on the rise because men and women were interacting more frequently.
And in 2011, Delhi state Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit told a television channel that the city was still too conservative for women to travel on the street late at night.
"All by herself till 3 a.m. at night in a city where people believe ... you know ... you should not be so adventurous," she said after a television journalist, Soumya Viswanathan, was shot dead as she drove home from work in the early hours.
(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji and Shashank Chouhan; Editing by Robert Birsel)