New Delhi -
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned a spate of rapes as a source of shame for India and urged an end to communal violence Friday as he vowed to improve the lives of the nation's poor in his first Independence Day speech.
Modi, the son of a tea vendor who come to power in May, also delivered a withering assessment of the ruling establishment from the ramparts of New Delhi's 17th century Red Fort as he addressed often taboo subjects such as sexual violence, foeticide, religious unrest and a lack of toilets.
The right-wing Hindu nationalist also restated his solidarity with the wider South Asian region but held back from mentioning India's great rival Pakistan which is also celebrating its independence 68 years ago.
In one of the most eye-catching passages of a 45-minute speech, Modi said levels of rape had shamed India, and he urged parents to take responsibility for the behaviour of their sons rather than put the onus on their daughters.
"When we hear about these rapes our heads hang in shame," Modi said.
"The law will take its own course but as a society every parent has a responsibility to teach their sons the difference between right and wrong."
Anger over sexual violence has been rising in the last two years, fuelled by a series of high-profile assaults including the fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in Delhi in December 2012.
And there was widespread outrage in May when two teenagers were found hanging from a mango tree after being gang-raped in Uttar Pradesh.
The girls, who were aged 14 and 15, were attacked while going to the toilet in fields after dark as - like hundreds of millions of Indians - they did not have a toilet in their own home.
"We are in the 21st century and yet there is still no dignity for women as they have to go out in the open to defecate and they have to wait for darkness to fall. Can you imagine the number of problems they have to face because of this?" Modi told the assembled VIPs.
"People may criticise me for talking about toilets from the Red Fort. But I am from a poor family, I have seen poverty first hand. For the poor to get dignity, it has to start from here."
Modi said India should strive to ensure that every household should have a toilet within the next four years and pledged to ensure that all schools had separate toilet facilities for girls and boys.
The prime minister also called for a change in mindset in a country where a baby boy is still sometimes seen as more of a blessing than a girl -particularly in rural areas.
Despite laws banning parents from finding out the sex of their unborn child, Modi said only 940 girls were being born for every 1 000 boys.
"Who is responsible for this imbalance in our society? I urge the doctors and mothers not to sacrifice their daughters for sons," he said.
Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, has also been the scene of several recent flare-ups in communal violence between Hindus and minority Muslims.
Before becoming premier, Modi was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat where he was in charge in 2002 during one of the India's deadliest chapters of communal violence since independence.
But in his speech, Modi said communal violence was "stalling the growth of the nation" and had gone on for "too long".
While Modi was accused by his opponents during the election of being too business-friendly, he said his government would take action to allow even the poorest members of society to open a bank account.
Hundreds of farmers have committed suicide in the last decade in a trend that Modi attributed to their inability to pay back private loans.
"We will have a prime minister's people wealth scheme so that even the poorest of the poor can have a bank account of their own," he said.
Modi, who has long stressed his "outsider" status, said that since becoming premier he had been taken aback by the departmental infighting and discord between ministries.
"Government should be an organic entity, moving in one direction with a common aim goal. I am trying to break down these walls," he said.
Initial reaction to his speech was largely positive.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior figure in the former ruling Congress party, praised what he called "an inclusive, harmonious" speech while Yogendra Yadav of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi party lauded Modi for speaking "spontaneously and with some conviction". - Sapa-AFP