President Pranab Mukherjee’s decision to sign the Union Cabinet’s ordinance seeking to address the massive hue and cry in the wake of the Delhi gang rape case, and to ameliorate the unprecedented protests against rape and sexual assault on women, looks terribly hurried and perfunctory an exercise to quickly amass public sympathy. The Sexual Assault Ordinance that was announced by the UPA government on Saturday, 1 February, in fact, makes a mockery of the spirit, the rigour and the sheer breadth of the Justice Verma Committee report, which was written after several rounds of discussion with eminent legal scholars, as well as women, academicians, medical professionals, teachers, students, women’s rights activists from all walks of life. The government ordinance has done great disservice to the report, and to the humungous civil insurrection that led to the writing of the comprehensive document in the first place. The ordinance, which is not even available yet on the public domain, is merely a pale shadow of the report because the very points that were hailed as radical and transformational by all and sundry, including women’s rights groups, legal practitioners, public intellectuals and media scholars, have been removed from it.
By not accepting the really impressive JVC recommendations – such as a) inclusion of marital rape within the ambit of rape laws (Section 376A); b) rape of women by military or police forces to be brought under the purview of criminal law; c) introduction of command responsibility, in which the senior officer will be held responsible for the actions of the junior officer within security agencies; d) electoral reform to exclude politicians charged with rape, and not just convicted of the crime; e) decriminalisation of sexual interaction within juveniles aged 16-18 years; f) exclusion of death penalty in all cases – the government has taken the bite out the report and has instead presented a heavily watered down version which would neither serve to make any systemic shifts, nor would cause any alteration of the entrenched prejudices that exist against women in our society and culture. The routinised violence against women will continue unabated if the government fails to appreciate the fact that acknowledging sexual autonomy of women and breaking down the bastion of male impunities and sexual entitlements are the stepping stones towards creating laws that are more egalitarian and helpful in the longer run.