The United Progressive Alliance government is likely to convene a special Cabinet meeting in the next few days to clear the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013 that imposes tougher sentences for crimes against women than those currently on the statute book.
The government is keen to pass the Bill in the first half of the current budget session so that the ordinance promulgated three weeks ahead of it does not lapse. It wants to underscore its sincerity in improving the security of women.
On Friday, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, underplaying reported differences in the government over certain provisions in the anti-rape law, told journalists: “The Law Ministry has given its views. The Ministry of Home Affairs is putting together the Bill. It will come to the Cabinet. May be there will be a special Cabinet meeting early. There are no differences in the government.”
Of course, there were those, he said, who endorsed the expression “sexual assault” that has been used in the ordinance, but others wanted the word “rape” to be retained. The question of whether the age of consent should be 18 or 16 is also yet to be addressed, he added, but the Cabinet would sort that out. The government, he stressed, had “every intention of passing the Bill before the deadline which is March 22 [the day the first half of the session concludes].
Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar too ruled out any delay in the passage of the Bill. The government, he said, would make a law “that would be credible, purposive, efficient, efficacious and [able to] withstand the scrutiny of the courts and the test of time.”
The new law will not just replace the ordinance — it will also replace the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012, introduced in the Lok Sabha in December last.
A key provision in the ordinance is that if an incident of rape leads to the death of the victim or leaves her in a vegetative state, it can attract the death penalty: the Bill retains this. It also enhances the seven-year sentence for those convicted of rape to 20 years, criminalises public sexual harassment ranging from cat calls to groping, and provides more stringent punishment in specific cases of stalking and acid attacks.
Mr. Chidambaram’s statement was a reiteration of what Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said on Thursday: he had also said that the UPA government was committed to seeking parliamentary approval for the anti-rape law in the first half of the current session, and had added that a special Cabinet meeting would be held for it shortly.
Clearly, the government’s parliamentary managers have been hard at work. For, on the eve of the budget session, senior ministerial sources expressed concern about the possibility of the ordinance lapsing as sections of the Opposition had been pressing for the Bill that will replace it to be sent to a Standing Committee of Parliament for another look at its provisions.
The government notified the ordinance with much fanfare as evidence of its sincerity to deal with crimes against women — an issue that had seen social protests across the country following the horrendous sexual assault of a 23-year-old paramedical student in Delhi last December. Politically, its passage — as also of the Lokpal Bill — is very important for the UPA government, with a string of Assembly elections scheduled for this year and the general elections in 2014. It would help it send a message that it means business, especially to the urban electorate.