The Lok Sabha on Tuesday passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, to provide for more stringent punishment for crimes against women, including natural life term or even death for repeat offenders of rape. For the first time, the new anti-rape law also imposes various penalties for stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, seeks to replace an ordinance which was promulgated on February 3. Though acid attacks, stalking, voyeurism and the trafficking of women are punishable under criminal law, the Lok Sabha voted against amendments seeking life imprisonment for acid attacks as also making first-time stalking a non-bailable offence.

Replying to a nearly six-hour-long debate, Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said the Bill enhanced punishment for various crimes against women and for the first time made it a punishable offence for police personnel not to register a First Information Report (FIR). He agreed with suggestions to post at least one woman officer in every police station and also holding in camera inquiry in crimes against women.

At the time of passing the Bill, only 168 members were present in the Lok Sabha and the number swelled to 198 later when voting on some of the amendments took place. However, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who sat through most part of the lengthy debate, was not present when the House passed the Bill.

Among those absent during the session were Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi as well as some of the Bharatiya Janata Party stalwarts, including party president Rajnath Singh. Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj was present and also supported an amendment, which was negated, to make stalking a non-bailable offence. Many senior ministers were also not present in the House during the debate and voting. Mr. Shinde moved half-a-dozen amendments which were approved by the House.

As many as eight women MPs from different parties participated in the debate, supporting the new anti-rape law and also demanding stringent punishment for acid attacks, adequate compensation and rehabilitation of victims of such attacks. These included Sumitra Mahajan and Saroj Pandey of the BJP, Jayaprada (Independent), Harsimrat Kaur Badal (Shiromani Akali Dal), Shatabdi Roy (Trinamool Congress), Meena Singh of the Janata Dal (United), Priya Dutt of the Congress and Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

All political parties broadly welcomed the government’s initiative and supported the Bill. Several leaders, including the JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav, Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad, said new laws alone would not be able to control crimes against women and called for changing the mindset of the people, arresting falling moral values and launching a reformist campaign that would educate the people on equal rights, respect and dignity for women.

Apprehension

Mr. Sharad Yadav argued that criminalising stalking and voyeurism could result in false cases being slapped against men. Shailendra Kumar (SP) was critical of the attire donned by women in TV serials and films. His comments invited strong protests from actor-turned-politician Ms. Jayaprada as well as Ms. Meena Singh.

The Lok Sabha voted against life imprisonment for perpetrators of acid attack incidents, rejecting the amendment by a margin of 105-62 and also turned down another seeking to make first-time stalking a non-bailable offence. The House also voted against life imprisonment for child-trafficking.

The demand for a strong anti-rape law gained ground after the Delhi gang rape, on December 16, 2012, of a 23-year-old, who battled for 13 days before succumbing to the grievous injuries inflicted on her. The brutal crime had shocked the nation, triggering protests by youth, women and civil rights groups, who demanded strict laws to deter crimes against women.

“The time has come to send out a loud, clear and deterrent signal that society will not tolerate such errant behaviour,” Mr. Shinde said, moving the Bill.

Initiating the discussion on the Bill, Bhola Singh (BJP) cited several anecdotes from history to point out that new laws alone would not help the cause of women and there was a need to change the mindset and culture.

Supriya Sule (NCP) said the focus of the discussion should be more on the safety of women and members should not mistrust women or fear they would abuse the legislation. She called for reforms in the judiciary and police too.

Others who participated in the debate included S. Semmalai (AIADMK), Nama Nageswara Rao (TDP), Gurudas Dasgupta (CPI), and Asaduddin Owaisi of the AIMIM.

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