The President of India Pranab Mukherjee signed an Ordinance on sexual crime against women on 03 February 2013 just two days after the Cabinet recommended changes in the anti-rape law to improve safety for women which also gave approval to death penalty for rapists in some cases.
A giant step was taken in a short span of time. On December 16, 2012 a heinous crime was committed on the streets of Delhi. A young innocent girl was brutally gang-raped, beaten and tortured to the utmost level of barbarism before being thrown off a moving bus by a group of blood thirsty assailants.
The entire country was shaken by such a cruel act. The nation rose on its feet and thronged the streets in support of the 23-year-old girl. She finally embraced death after putting up a brave fight. But her death did not go in vain and was also not the end of the story. Rather it added fuel to the already accelerated anger of the entire nation demanding tough laws and harsher punishments for rapists.
The government took notice of the people’s fury and the need for change in the existing law for rape and sexual crimes against women.
Being brought against the backdrop of the Delhi gang-rape incident, the Ordinance entails changes in the criminal
law by amending Indian Penal Code (IPC), Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the Evidence Act.
According to the new Ordinance an accused in a rape case will be awarded death penalty if the victim dies or goes into coma. Here the Cabinet has gone beyond the recommendations of Justice JS Verma committee to strengthen the anti -rape law in India. The Ordinance has also enhanced punishment against offences like stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks, tonsuring, disrobing, stripping, indecent gestures like words and inappropriate touch. It also gives a victim under the age of 18 the option of not appearing before the accused. The path-breaking Ordinance is expected to see light of the day in form of a bill in the first half of the Budget session. The law minister Ashwani Kumar has remarked - “We believe that this is a progressive piece of legislation and is consistent with felt sensitivities of the nation in the aftermath of outrageous gang-rape in Delhi.”
Although government has gone ahead with the entire exercise with a sense of urgency, many women’s groups are not still satisfied with the anti-rape Ordinance. They are upset over government’s refusal to recognise marital rape as an offense, failure to hold command officers accountable for rapes by their subordinates and omission of rapes by Armed forces as a category. Maybe they have a point in saying that if the entire Ordinance was not going to affect the punishment being given to the culprits of Delhi gang-rape then the government could have taken some more time to discuss the matter to give it more teeth.
However, the journey of women’s safety and the right to live without fear and on an equal footing with men is a long one and many more things need to be changed in the country, specially the perspective of the society towards women.
For example in a recent incident, after online threats and hate messages, the only all-girls rock band of J&K ‘Praagaash’ faced the ire of the Grand Mufti of Kashmir, Bashir-ud-din Farooqi who issued a fatwa against the three girls, saying that they should stop what they were doing. In what sounded preposterous he advised them to imbibe moral values.
Hardline faction of Hurriyat Conference also expressed surprise over Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah`s support for the rock band, saying there is no room to nourish western culture and immoral values in the state.
Hurriyat spokesman Ayaz Akbar said - “As a matter of fact no noble family will allow their girls to choose their profession as a dancer so as to be a mere thing of pleasure for strangers.”
The girls came into glare of publicity after their sparkling performance at the yearly ‘Battle of Bands’ competition. Two days after their performance, they received online threats and abusive comments. The girls were ultimately forced to quit and tragically the beautiful voices from the valley were silenced, maybe forever. The band ‘Pragaash’ means ‘from darkness to light’ but now it seems that girls have gone into the darkness due to the patriarchal mentality of the society.
Is this how the women of this country are supposed to feel safe? We are in the 21st century but a lot of people still have not been able to digest the fact that women are now on the same footing as men. Communities like the ‘Khap’ have become self-imposing authorities who have no respect for the women folk. According to them women are just to be bounded in the four walls of the house. Such mindsets also give rise to atrocities and crimes against women. It appears that in a large part of our country a women’s progress and achievements hurt a man’s ego, in turn forcing them to commit inhuman acts against females.
Let us hope the women feel safe with the introduction of a new anti-rape law and let us also hope that it acts as a deterrent for criminals and rapists. But it needs to be reiterated that forming a law alone is not enough. A certain amount of sensitivity towards the female sex is what lacking in a large part of our society, which needs to be cultivated. The executive, the police and the judiciary also needs to change its mind set and come together and work for a larger cause. Swift action by the police and judicial bodies is the need of the hour.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)