NEW DELHI (TIP): Differences of opinion over the draft Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill – seeking to reintroduce the word ‘rape’ instead of ‘sexual assault’ in the anti-rape law and lower the age of consensual sex from 18 to 16 – forced the government to defer bringing it before the Union Cabinet on March 7.
It is learnt that the law ministry has expressed reservations over the home ministry’s draft replacing ‘sexual assault’ with ‘rape’ while the ministry of women and child development may not be in sync with bringing down the age of consent from 18 to 16 years. “The bill has to stand the scrutiny of Parliament and later judiciary.
A consensus is must for the government before moving ahead. In all likelihood, the draft bill will not undergo major changes now and will soon be brought before Cabinet,” said an official privy to concerns expressed by different ministries. Law minister Ashwani Kumar, however, said there was no divergence of opinion within the ministries. “It is delayed because the home ministry is still giving final touches to the bill. As soon as it is ready, it will be brought before the Cabinet,” he added.
The home ministry’s draft has, in fact, reversed what the previous Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012 and the Ordinance on Criminal Law, 2013 had done in the case of the two contentious provisions and preferred to go by the recommendation of the Justice J S Verma committee’s recommendation which insists on retaining the word ‘rape’ in the law. The ordinance – making the antirape law much more stringent — was promulgated by the President on February 3 in the wake of public outrage over the December 16 gangrape of Nirbhaya.
Making sexual crimes gender neutral, the ordinance replaced ‘rape’ with ‘sexual assault’ in tune with provisions of the pending bill. Sources said though hectic interministerial consultations were still on to fine-tune the draft keeping concerns of different ministries in mind, there were indications that the home ministry’s opinion on retaining the word ‘rape’ would prevail.
They said the home ministry would at the most widen the definition of ‘rape’ and put certain caveats while treating voyeurism as sexual abuse. It has to bring the fresh draft before the Cabinet as early as possible because government needs to bring it to Parliament within six weeks of the ordinance getting promulgated. Bringing down the age of consent from 18 to 16 years is likely to be opposed by the WCD ministry since it will be run contrary to a recent law protecting children from sexual offences and the Child Marriage (Prohibition) Act.
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, which was passed by Parliament last year, was enacted following recommendations by a parliamentary panel and a range of experts suggesting that the age of consent provision was being misused for child trafficking for sex, labour and domestic work.
The WCD ministry had also reasoned that the provision was used to slap false cases against young couples who were targeted for not conforming to social norms. The ministry had faced the wrath of child rights activists at the time who felt that stringent punishment like life imprisonment for sexual assault could be used to criminalize teenage sex, making any intercourse below 18 years of age an offence under this law.