NEW DELHI - The mother of a student who was fatally gang-raped on a bus led the outrage Friday against an Indian political leader who described three convicted multiple rapists as "boys" who had made "mistakes".
During a rally in the state of Uttar Pradesh on Thursday, Mulayam Singh Yadav said his Samajwadi Party would try to change the law on punishments for rapists after India's ongoing elections as he spoke out in defence of three men who have been sentenced to death for repeat sexual assaults.
"Three poor fellows have been sentenced to death. Should rape cases lead to hanging?" said the 74-year-old Yadav, whose party governs the electorally crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.
"They are boys, they make mistakes," he added in reference to the three men aged 28, 21 and 19 who were sentenced in Mumbai last week for their part in two gang-rapes.
They were the first death sentences to be handed down for multiple sex attacks since the law was toughened following the outrage over the December 2012 attack on the bus in New Delhi.
The mother of the 23-year-old victim, who died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital two weeks after the assault, called Yadav a "disgusting and shameless" politician and urged voters to reject leaders who "don't understand the torture women go through".
"His comments hurt us so much," the mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told AFP.
"Every day women get raped and they are all mistakes? He talks about doing away with the death sentence for rapists but parents like us feel even death is not enough for rapists. They deserve worse." Yadav's remarks sparked a backlash on social media where #backingrapists and 'Mulayam Singh' were top trending topics on Twitter.
Political parties and women's rights groups poured scorn on the 74-year-old ex-wrestler over his "misogynistic" comments and demanded an apology.
"Comments by such a senior leader is not only objectionable, but also it is sad and shameful. Mulayam Singh's remarks show how much respect he has for women in his heart, and how irresponsible he is towards women's security," ruling Congress party spokesman Meem Afzal said.
Ranjana Kumari, head of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, asked the Election Commission to take action against Yadav as "calling rape a small mistake is directly encouraging rape".
That anger was fuelled by rambling comments from the party's leader in the state of Maharashtra who appeared to call for rape victims to be hanged along with their attackers on the grounds that they had extra-marital sex.
Although the party's power is largely limited to Uttar Pradesh, its strength in what is India's most populous state could mean it has a kingmaking role in coalition negotiations after the general elections wrap up next month.