The image of India and its leaders in the eyes of the world has changed - for the worse. This was articulated by the Bombay High Court, which reportedly observed that the dominant ideas about India among the international community involve "crime and rape". The high court is not off the mark; the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua sent so many shockwaves through the global community that the International Monetary Fund chief, Christine Lagarde, asked the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to pay greater heed to keeping women in his country safe. It is already shameful that the leader of India drew censure from the head of an international organization for his prolonged silence and inaction. Now, a report by the Association of Democratic Reforms has bolstered the stand taken by the high court and Ms Lagarde: its analysis of the election affidavits of current parliamentarians and members of legislative assemblies shows that at least 48 lawmakers are accused of crimes against women, with the highest number belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. This, with the abysmal rate of rape convictions in the country, indicates that India's international image mirrors its ground realities to a frightening extent.

For any government, the nation's global reputation is supposed to be of great importance. It informs bilateral relations, tourism and foreign policy, all of which lawmakers are expected to care about. It even affects how Indians are treated abroad. The recent findings, however, show that policymakers care little about the world's opinion, and even less about the opinions of their own people. This is reflected in the apathy with which they handle legislation related to women's empowerment - the women's reservation bill has been stuck in Parliament for 22 years - and the impunity with which they commit, and often defend, sexual assault. It does not help that, at present, it is still legal for convicted rapists to form and head political parties in India. There have been vociferous protests against allowing those accused or convicted of corrupt practices to hold positions of power. Would this clamour be extended to include crimes such as rape?

In a hurried reaction to the unspeakable horror of the Kathua case, the Centre has approved an ordinance to amend the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act to include the death penalty for the rape of minors below the age of 12. While the efficacy of this move in curbing such crimes in the future can be debated, one thing is for certain. It will deflect attention from the urgent need - for both the State and citizens - to address the utter breakdown of values in a society which allows such crimes to occur, and regularly shields those who commit them. It does not bode well for India that members of the global community think it is a violent place for women and children; it is even more ominous that they are right.

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