India must protect its women; don't politicize rape: Modi

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Wednesday that India should respect and protect its women, breaking his silence on a crime wave that included the rape and hanging of two young girls two weeks ago.

In his first speech to parliament since a dramatic election victory last month, Modi promised to govern for the poor, to train India’s bulging youth population to be an effective labour force and to shed the country’s tawdry reputation for graft.

The Hindu nationalist leader, who critics accuse of bias toward other religions, also struck an inclusive note, telling lawmakers that economic development needed to focus on India’s minority Muslim population, which is largely poor.

Modi, backed by the strongest electoral mandate in three decades, has acted to re-establish India as a regional leader and to restore investor optimism towards Asia’s third largest economy. But until now, he had been notably silent about the spate of violence and sex crimes in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

“Respecting and protecting women should be a priority of the 1.25 billion people in this country,” the 63-year-old Modi said.

“All these incidents should make us introspect. The government will have to act. The country won’t wait and people won’t forget,” Modi told lawmakers, urging politicians not to speculate publicly on why rapes are committed.

The double killing was the most shocking in a series of crimes that has highlighted a breakdown of law and order in Uttar Pradesh, and triggered criticism of the political leadership in the state, home to more people than Brazil.

Relatives refused to allow the bodies of the girls, aged 12 and 14, to be cut down from a village mango tree until police took up the case. Three suspects have been arrested and two policemen held on suspicion of attempting to cover up the crime.

On Wednesday another woman was found hanged from a tree near the Nepal border in Uttar Pradesh. Police have opened a murder investigation and await the findings of a post mortem to determine whether the 45-year-old victim was raped before her death, local police chief Happy Guptan said.

Writing by Douglas Busvine and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Alexandra Hudson