No law is perfect, and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which was passed in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, is no exception. Yet its passage after a seven-hour debate is an important landmark for a country that is battling the stigma of a rising incidence of crime against women. The Bill now goes to the Rajya Sabha, and once cleared, it will replace the anti-rape ordinance that was promulgated on February 3.
The new law sets a maximum penalty of death in cases in which a rape victim dies or is left in a “vegetative state” and a minimum of 20 years in prison for those convicted in incidents of gang rape or the rape of a minor. It also includes rape by a police officer or public official. Earlier, the punishment for a rapist was between seven to 10 years. The proposed new law will retain the age of consent for sex at 18 years. Importantly, the legislation contains new penalties for stalking, groping, voyeurism and acid attacks.
Despite its progressive elements, the law does not address contentious issues like marital rape or legal immunity for army men. Nor does it have any provision that prohibits politicians charged with rape from running for office. Saying that a historic opportunity has been lost, child rights activists have argued, that the law does not try to prevent trafficking of minors, which often leads to sexual exploitation. Sexual assault, they added, cannot be seen in isolation but in the context of trafficking.
That the law is necessary and could not have come at a more appropriate juncture is evident from the fact that the very day it was cleared in the LS, a British woman was allegedly forced to jump from the balcony of her hotel room in Agra fearing sexual assault. Days earlier, a Swiss national was raped in Madhya Pradesh. And of course, we had the incident which shocked the nation to its core, the horrific December 16 gang rape in which after a heroic fight for her life, the victim succumbed.
Yet, these are only a few cases that have been widely reported; there are many more such cases that don’t get similar news coverage because of various reasons.
Despite a national outcry after the Delhi gang rape and their much publicised commitment to make the provisions in the Bill become law, when it came to the crunch — voting in Parliament— not too many legislators were present. And conspicuous by their absence were the Yadav triumvirate — Sharad Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav — who not only questioned the necessity of law but also the new provisions that make stalking and staring a crime.
Their barbs in Parliament were similar to what the nation had heard during the discussion on the Women’s Reservation Bill some years ago. When the attitude of the lawmakers leaves so much to be desired, it is little wonder that the societal mindset change that we need so much is taking so long to come about.