NEW DELHI -- President Pranab Mukherjee on Friday warned about the danger of corruption corroding Indian public life and called on the country to "reset its moral compass" in light of a grisly gang rape and murder of a young woman that have stirred outrage and protests in India and around the world.
Mr. Mukherjee, speaking in a nationally televised address on the eve of Republic Day, the national holiday observing the enactment of India's democratic constitution, made a blunt call for gender equity and described the Dec. 16 attack on the young woman in New Delhi as a "grave tragedy that has shattered complacency."
"The brutal rape and murder of a young woman, a woman who was a symbol of all that new India strives to be, has left our hearts empty and our minds in turmoil," Mr. Mukherjee said. "We lost more than a valuable life; we lost a dream. If today young Indians feel outraged, can we blame our youth?"
The position of president is largely ceremonial in India's parliamentary democracy. But Mr. Mukherjee, who became president last year, is one of India's most experienced and respected political figures. On Friday, he used what is often a bland and celebratory address to deliver a plaintive message to the nation.
"When we brutalize a woman, we wound the soul of our civilization," he said, noting the sanctity of a woman in India's Hindu religious traditions. "It is time for the nation to reset its moral compass. Nothing should be allowed to spur cynicism, as cynicism is blind to morality. We must look deep into our conscience and find out where we have faltered."
Mr. Mukherjee's remarks came as the rape and its aftermath continued to shake India. On Wednesday, a special government commission led by a former chief justice of the Indian Supreme Court released a report calling for major reforms in policing as well as legislation to expand criminal penalties for some crimes against women.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, a judge presiding over a special "fast track" court in New Delhi began hearing the trial of five defendants in the rape case. The case could last for several months, with a huge list of witnesses, though the judge has invoked a gag order that has tightly restricted what information can be made public about the proceedings.
The case has resonated, not only because of the grisly brutality of the attack, but also because of the clumsy and, in some cases, insensitive response of India's political class. The police were initially called in to beat back protesters, many of them college students. Several politicians and spiritual leaders were quoted making insensitive comments about the case.
More recently, political parties have sought to tap into the anger unleashed by the attack -- often with unorthodox solutions. In Mumbai, the country's financial capital, a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the Shiv Sena, has distributed kitchen knives and chili powder to women, even as they described it as a symbolic gesture.
In his address, Mr. Mukherjee spoke about how the rape case had tapped into the disillusionment of India's younger generation, one that had already been expressing disenchantment with the country's political system. This group, often described as India's "demographic dividend," is struggling to find quality jobs, quality education and opportunity in India's economy.
"The future belongs to them," Mr. Mukherjee said. "They are today troubled by a range of existential doubts. Does the system offer due reward for merit? Has corruption overtaken morality in public life? Does our legislature reflect emerging India or does it need radical reforms? These doubts have to be set at rest. Elected representatives must win back the confidence of the people."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.