Under pressure from the Opposition, the Union Cabinet on Monday approved a diluted version of the bill dealing with sexual crimes against women. The new version will be introduced in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday.
This was just hours after the UPA failed to convince opposition leaders, primarily the BJP, the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal-United, at an all-party meeting to agree to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 the union cabinet had cleared last Thursday, after it was scrutinised by a Group of Ministers.
In the bill approved on Monday, the age of consent for sex has again been increased to 18 years: the IPC, where it is 16, will now have to be amended. Last year, when Parliament passed the Child Protection Act, 2012, the age of consent was 18. If last week’s version of the new draft law had continued with stalking as a non-bailable crime, now the first offence will be bailable — a second offence will become non-bailable. The definition of voyeurism has been diluted and while earlier disrobing a woman in public was punishable, now it will be a crime even in private, if force is used.
At the all-party meeting on Monday, political sources said that while the CPI maintained that 16 years should be the age of consent, the BJP, the SP and some others demanded that the age of consent be 18, contending that since the age of marriage is 18, the age of consent should be the same. SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav vehemently opposed the anti-rape bill even as the Trinamool Congress pressed for wider consultations with the states. The BJP wanted the provisions related to stalking and voyeurism to be tweaked. The RJD and the JD-U, too, were uncomfortable with clauses dealing with voyeurism and stalking.
Since the bill can be passed with a simple majority, the government may succeed in getting it through the Lok Sabha, but it may face difficulties in the Rajya Sabha where it does not have a majority — given the discomfort levels in many parties with the bill. Among MPs, the primary fear is that the bill does not have sufficient safeguards against filing of false cases by political opponents.
Indeed, after the all-party meeting, Union parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath told journalists, “Largely there is consensus on the intent and the content of the Bill, except that there are concerns about misuse and abuse of some of the provisions of the Bill.”
With Congress president — and UPA chairperson — Sonia Gandhi determined to get this bill through Parliament before April 3, when the ordinance lapses, the government has been in fast-track mode. It first passed an ordinance in early February close on the heels of the submission of the Verma Commission Report. Then last Tuesday, there was a special meeting of the Union Cabinet to clear the bill — differences among the ministers led to the setting up of a GoM, headed by Union Finance Minister P. Chidamabaram that submitted its recommendations within two days.
“Some political leaders said the law could be misused ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. They wanted safeguards to be specified,” a minister who attended the all-party meeting said. The Criminal Laws Ordinance was promulgated by the President on February 3. The Ordinance lapses on April 4 and the government and most parties are of the view that the bill be passed with suitable changes before the budget session goes into recess on March 22.