How a brutal crime led to formation of anti-rape ordinance

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It was termed as a historic move when President Pranab Mukherjee gave his approval and signed the anti-rape ordinance on Sunday, Feb 4. Experts say it is perhaps the quickest law which has been amended by Centre in legislative history of our country. The reasons for it is known to all--public anger and protest--demanding safety of women.

Those who have been closely observing the turn of events in the wake of brutal Delhi gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old paramedical student on Dec 16, 2012, anger of public against crime against women is quite palpable. The victim, who was accompanied by her male friend in the bus died in a Singapore hospital on Dec 29, 2012.

The Congress led UPA government sensed public sentiment well. In the aftermath of the horrific crime, government was fast enough to form Justice Verma Committee to suggest tougher laws for crimes against women.

Protest against rape

The panel was headed by former Chief Justice of India JS Verma. The other members of the committee were Justice (Retd) Leila Seth, former Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court and former Solicitor General of India Gopal Subramaniam.

The panel did a prompt job and came up with a 631-page report within a month of its formation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also showcased similar commitment to bring tougher laws to curtail incidences of violence against women.

On January 30, Prime Minister wrote to Justice Verma, "I am writing to thank you, Justice (Smt.) Leila Seth and Shri Gopal Subramanian for your labour of love in completing the work of the Committee our government had constituted to recommend amendments in Law to be able to deal effectively with cases of sexual assault of extreme nature against women. That the Committee submitted its report within a short period of 30 days is testimony to your commitment and concern for the public good. On behalf of our government, I assure you that we will be prompt in pursuing the recommendations of the Committee."

The ordinance will become law as soon as it gets the presidential ascent and requires parliamentary approval within six months. The government plans to complete the procedure in the budget session. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh convened the special cabinet meeting soon after he met Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Friday, Feb 1 morning.

The highlights of the ordinance contains death penalty for rapists who cause grievous physical or mental damage to their victims - such as leaving them in a permanent vegetative state, the ordinance lays down a comprehensive framework for dealing with crimes against women, it has replaced the word "rape" with a wider definition of sexual assault, it provides varying punishments for rapists, depending on the degree of the crime committed, a person convicted in a rape case will be jailed from seven years to life while gang-rape will lead to a minimum terms of 20 years, and even stalking, disrobing a woman and vouyerism were also brought under criminal law.

However, several women's rights activists have criticised the government for ignoring the committee recommendations regarding marital rape and reviewing controversial sections of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Moreover, several of the key points in the ordinance are not new to Indian penal system. Be death penalty for rape-cum-murder or imprisonment for entire life already exists. Then, why there is a haste in coming up with an ordinance which is only stressing the same points? Why the government did not consult opposition political parties, NGOs and legal luminaries before coming up with the ordinance?

Making an analysis of the anti-rape ordinance, former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and activist Kiran Bedi stressed the government needs to give a holistic response to the society on the Justice Verma Committee's recommendations.

"Justice Verma Committee is not only about the law. There is a lot before the law and there is a lot after the law. I think the government needs to give a holistic response to the society on Justice Verma Committee''s recommendations. It concerns police reforms, it concerns judicial reforms, it concerns electoral reforms. I think what the people of this country demand of this government is a holistic response," said Bedi.

"It''s a beginning made, but it''s a very long way to go because Justice Verma (Committee''s) recommendations is a holistic correction. A politician involved in crime, a person in uniform involved in crime and then police reforms as such. I think this is a beginning. I hope this is not an intention for people to say we have done it and that''s it. I think what this country is demanding is a holistic response because Justice Verma Committee is a very holistic way at looking at crime prevention," she added.

Taking a critical view of the ordinance, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Brinda Karat said: "We disapprove of the ordinance. The CPI-M has issued a statement that we disapprove of this ordinance. See when Parliament is meeting, it is just three weeks away; it is undemocratic in fact to bring an ordinance like this. And the content of the ordinance is doing injustice to the Justice Verma recommendations because it is highly selective in what it has included in the ordinance. And in fact what it has included in some parts also is against what Justice Verma has recommended. We don''t agree with this ordinance."

In regard to death penalty, Karat said, "as far as death penalty is concerned, Justice Verma has already clarified and correctly that there is rarest of rare categories on our statute books today. Therefore, a case of murder and rape would any case come under this category if that is what the judges want. Therefore, there was no need except to divert attention from the serious recommendations of the Committee on state''s culpability, including recommendation to include the armed forces in the criminal law as far as sexual offences are concerned," she added.

Coming out in support of the ordinance, Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath on Saturday said the ordinance approved by the Union Cabinet on the basis of the Justice Verma Committee report, would definitely create fear among criminal elements of the society.

"The Cabinet has agreed to most of the recommendations proposed by in the Justice Verma Committee report. We have included issues like stalking, acid attack and the stringent punishment in the ordinance sent to the President. We will get it passed through Parliament in the upcoming Budget session," added Tirath.

Now, time will decide whether the new ordinance will decrease sexual crimes against women, or better implementation of existing laws?

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