Andhra Pradesh director general of police V Dinesh Reddy's statement attributing increase in rape cases to women provoking men by wearing "flimsy and fashionable" dresses has triggered another debate.
The statement attracted almost instant condemnation from various quarters, including the Central Government. "I strongly disagree with that statement. Everyone is entitled to dress the way he or she pleases as long as he or she has regards to the occasion, the place and the context. Obviously, you don't wear whole lot of clothes to play football or tennis and you don't wear swimwear and go to a cocktail party," Union home minister P Chidambaram had commented.
In fact the right to wear a dress of one's own choice is covered under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression subject to certain reasonable restrictions, including public order, decency and morality.
Reddy is not the first or the only person in power to make such a statement. Even in western countries there have been instances of moral policing. A Canadian policeman was forced to apologise after suggesting women could avoid sexual assault by not dressing like "sluts".
While the western world grapples with the issue, as the Slutwalk showed, in a country like India where women are far less empowered and crimes against women are shockingly high - according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the total reported crimes in 2010 against women including rape and sexual harrassment were 213585 - such statements only worsen the situation by putting the onus of safety on women.
While the Canadian cop's famous statement was a one-off that triggered a worldwide movement, in India, every time such a statement is made there is hue and cry, debate and discussion and the issue subsides. There is hardly any action against the persons making the offending statements. Can they be dragged to court for allegedly abetting or inciting crimes (such as rape and outraging modesty of women) offences against women?
According to section 107 (first part) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), "A person abets the doing of a thing, who instigates any person to do that thing."
Section 108 of the IPC that defines "abettor", says, "A person abets an offence, who abets either the commission of an offence, or the commission of an act which would be an offence, if committed by a person capable of law of committing an offence with the same intention or knowledge as that of the abettor.
According to Explanation 2 of Section 108 of the IPC, "To constitute the offence of abetment it is not necessary that the act abetted should be committed, or that effect requisite to constitute the offence should be caused."
Section 505(1)(b) of the IPC, says, "Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility; or (c) with intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of persons to commit any offence against any other class or community, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.
Can statements like the one made by the Andhra Pradesh DGP amount to abetting or inciting a crime against women?
Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan says such a statement has the potential to create public mischief and, depending upon facts of a particular case, it can attract Section 505 of the IPC.
"Such comments are highly irresponsible. Instead of protecting women, we find police officers saying that they are wrong to dress in the way they dress, which the officers find provocative. This shows that his mind is tainted and biased. Equally, such a statement can cause fear or alarm to women and may induce a person to commit crimes against women."
Condemning the statement, Dhavan said: "It appears to be a statement of policy to blame the victim of a rape or sexual harassment and to absolve the rapist or the harasser. This will simply not do."
But senior counsel Pinky Anand is clear that such statements cannot amount to inciting or abetting offences against women. "I don't think any offence is made out…. for the simple reason that abetment has to be towards commission of a crime." She said: "No doubt the statement by the senior officer is unfortunate, improper and out of place. But to attract the provisions of criminal law there has to be intention to incite or abet a crime."
Senior counsel and law commission vice chairman KTS Tulsi agrees. "It can amount to justifying a crime. But it can neither be termed as abetment or instigation. To categorise such statements as a crime would be stretching it too far."
Tulsi, however, said, "Such statements reflect society's male chauvinist mindset. By proceeding to rationalise or justify crimes against women, they are inadvertently promoting unacceptable behaviour on the part of men towards women."
Advocate Anand Grover, who fought a long-drawn legal battle to decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults in private, says, "It's an open question. Nobody has tried it. A lot would depend on what the person said and under what circumstances."
He, however, said: "Crime or no crime, to say that dresses can provoke men to rape is obnoxious. It creates an environment in which people think it's ok to rape women. No person, particularly a police officer, has a right to talk like this."
Has the time come to drag such people to the court of law for their irresponsible statements?