GoM to place amended version tomorrow, all-party meet to vet it on March 18
The draft law to deal with crimes against women ran into rough weather on Tuesday when the Union Cabinet met specially to consider it, and an influential section — largely lawyers — said some of its provisions were too draconian. An amended version, being put together by a Group of Ministers headed by Finance Minister P. Chidambaram will be placed before the Cabinet again on Thursday before it is vetted at an all-party meeting on March 18.
The UPA government, official sources said, still hoped it would be able to bring in The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 to replace the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance of February 3, before Parliament on March 19 and pass it by March 22, when the first half of the current session ends. Ministerial sources said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasised to his Cabinet colleagues on Tuesday the need to pass the Bill expeditiously, as the ordinance would lapse on April 4.
Emerging from the first meeting of the GoM (set up immediately after Tuesday morning’s deliberations), Mr. Chidambaram told journalists that work on the anti-rape law had been “completed substantially” and that “another hour or so” was required to finalise the draft. The next sitting would be on Wednesday evening, he added, saying all points of view had been taken for some Sections and the same process would be followed for the remaining Sections. The Cabinet would then consider it on Thursday. His colleagues on the GoM include Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, Social Justice Minister Kumari Selja, and Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath.
Sources in the government said the differences largely dealt with the provisions on stalking, voyeurism, on whether to lower the age of consensual sex from 18 to 16, on the advisability of replacing the word “rape” with the broader, gender neutral term “sexual assault” and whether there should be a stronger penalty for those who made a “malicious” complaint, defined as one that is not ultimately proved.
Mr. Ashwani Kumar, the sources said, took the lead in insisting on adequate “safeguards” being inserted in the Bill to ensure that the law was not used to settle scores. In this he had the support of the other legal luminaries in the government and the Nationalist Congress Party’s Praful Patel.
In the current draft, for instance, both stalking and voyeurism were non-bailable offences, and so one suggestion was to have a pre-investigation before a First Information Report was filed.
The question of reducing the age of consent from 18 to 16 saw even women Cabinet Ministers disagreeing — while Tourism Minister Chandresh Kumari said it should be lowered to 16, Ms. Tirath wanted it to remain 18. A ministerial source said the debate on this revolved round those who said lowering the age would only reflect current social realities, while others pointed out that though untouchability was outlawed, it was still being practised.
Petroleum Minister M. Veerappa Moily apparently was one of the few opposed to tougher punishments for “malicious” complaints, saying that would deter women from coming forward with instances of sexual harassment.