On the 19th of March a sparsely attended Lok Sabha (Lower House) of the Indian Parliament debated and finally passed the country’s new anti-rape Law. Sonia Gandhi, President of the Congress Party which heads the country’s ruling coalition, and her son Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party Vice-President, were conspicuous by their absence and so were a host of other key parliamentarians. Of the MPs present, some sniggered at their female counterparts, others blamed westernization for rape, or claimed that if better laws against sexual violence were passed, coeducational schools would have to be shut down; and one even declared that stalking was a form of courtship. The debate was a microcosm of the patriarchal views of those who rule India. It was in line with the government’s earlier actions. In December last year during the massive protests demanding action to ensure women’s freedom from sexual violence, following the horrific gang-rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi, the government had not only sent in police with tear gas, water cannon and baton charges but had steadfastly refused to address the protesters.
When eventually mass pressure forced it to set up a committee under a High Court Judge, Justice Verma to recommend changes to the law and this committee reported, they shamelessly ignored these recommendations and instead proposed a blatantly anti-women Bill . Among other regressive stipulations the Bill proposed that the perpetrators of rape could be both men and women – it would mean, as one activist commented, that if a woman accused a man of rape, he could respond by taking her to court for rape too. The Bill also increased the age of consent (which had been 16 since 1983) to 18. As Kavita Krishnan of the All-India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), an activist centrally involved in the movement against sexual violence explained, this increase in the age of consent would mean that teenage boys could be criminalised as rapists or sexual offenders for holding hands, hugging or any other consensual physical or sexual contact with girls of a similar age. The law would therefore condone the ‘moral policing’ by family members, neighbours and third parties (who could be Khap Panchayats -village councils in Haryana and Punjab or the moral policing outfits of Hindu supremacist groups).
The Bill was met with further protests and campaigning, and a powerful People’s Watch over Parliament. The government was forced to modify it and the legislation which was eventually passed by the Lok Sabha was a victory, albeit a partial one for the movement. Among the demands of the movement which were met are a broader definition of rape; the recognition of acid attacks, forcibly stripping a woman in public or private, stalking and voyeurism as sexual crimes; the recognition that in rape cases the accused is ‘gender specific’ (because women do not rape men, the sexual abuse of children by women being recognised under other legislation); the punishment of police officers for not registering complaints of rape; and a redefinition of rape under which a woman who does not physically resist the act of penetration will no longer for that reason alone be regarded as consenting to sexual activity.