Over the years Indian politics has come to be defined by a peculiar characteristic: it has become more inclusive and representative in terms of caste and class but regressed on issues relating to women. This uncomfortable truth was brought home in the aftermath of the widely condemned Delhi gang rape. Politicians claimed to be revulsed by the violence which extinguished a young life. Yet in their speeches, they borrowed freely from patriarchal notions of the woman’s place, viewing rape as defilement and equating it with death. The larger political view on the age of consent is similarly obscurantist in the way it understands sex and marriage. The age for consensual sex is 16 under the Indian Penal Code but under pressure from the Opposition, the United Progressive Alliance government has been forced to raise this to 18 in the proposed Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which aims to strengthen the legal architecture relating to sexual crimes against women. The deeply conservative Bharatiya Janata Party has expectedly placed itself in the vanguard of the battle against lowering the age of consent.
The BJP’s opposition is on the grounds that a lowered age of consent would result in a wave of sexual permissiveness resulting in the disruption of family values. Surprisingly, the view seems to have found acceptance among the so-called Lohiaite parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Ironically, their mentor Ram Manohar Lohia was a happy libertarian in these matters. As far back as 1953, he wrote: “If a girl knocks around and elopes and mischances into illegitimacy, that is all part of the bargain to achieve normal relationships between man and woman and no stain at all.” The progressive argument for separating sex and marriage and setting the age of consensual sex at 16 is that in urban India as much in the villages pre-marital sex is today a social reality. The benchmark of 18 is not just unrealistic, it will criminalise sexual activity below that age, giving a handle to violent outfits such as khap panchyats which habitually penalise young people by misrepresenting consensual sex as rape. A higher age of consent will adversely affect relationships outside the traditional caste and community boundaries, promoting societal intolerance towards perceived transgressions. As lawyer Vrinda Grover has persuasively argued, law should strengthen our rights and freedoms and not become an instrument of social control and moral policing. But political parties that tear up the women’s reservation bill, and field men accused of rape in elections are hardly likely to understand the importance of gender sensitivity.