New Delhi: President Pranab Mukherjee today signed the ordinance on sexual assault which was passed by the union cabinet on Friday. Women’s rights groups had urged the President yesterday not to sign the ordinance, saying the cabinet had selectively accepted the recommendations of the Justice JS Verma commission.
With President Mukherjee signing it, the ordinance comes into effect immediately. The Parliament now has to pass the ordinance within six months. The Budget Session of Parliament starts on February 21.
The Union Cabinet on Friday recommended the draft of the ordinance to the President for his assent in a bid to fast-track amendments to the laws to check crime against women, the subject of national debate after the fatal gang-rape of a young student on a Delhi bus in December.
The ordinance incorporates some but not all of the recommendations of the Justice Verma commission, a panel of three legal experts, appointed by the government in the wake of fierce street protests after the Delhi gang-rape.
In its ordinance, the government has suggested death penalty or imprisonment till death in ‘extreme’ cases of sexual assault. The Justice Verma panel did not ask for the death penalty even for extreme cases of rape, largely because women’s groups were not in favour of it.
Also, the Justice Verma committee had recommended that marital rape be recognised as a crime, it does not feature in the ordinance which also replaces the word “rape” with the term “sexual assault” and includes acid attacks and stalking. The ordinance also does not include any reference to a review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA -the commission had suggested that sexual crimes by members of the armed forces should be tried under ordinary criminal law.
A day after the ordinance was passed by the cabinet, women’s groups lashed out at the Centre. “We are alarmed at the complete lack of transparency shown by the government… We call upon the President not to sign such an ordinance,” the groups said in a statement.
The groups were represented by human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover, Sunita Dhar of Jagori, Kavita Krishnan from the All India Progressive Women’s Association and Madhu Mehra from Partners for Law and Development.
The activists said the government had ignored all recommendations of the Verma commission that could have empowered women in the fight against sexual violence.
“An ordinance like this, implemented by stealth, serves to weaken our democracy. It betrays the trust of thousands of men and women who marched on the streets of Delhi and other cities demanding an end to impunity for sexual violence,” said Vrinda Grover.
Minister of State for Home, RPN Singh, assured that the ordinance was not final. “The standing committee is going to see all the recommendations of the Verma commission. We will discuss these recommendations. The government is aware that we need stringent laws to protect women,” he said.
To better understand why the AFSPA and other provisions suggested by the Justice Verma Commission were not accepted by the Indian Government one needs to readPaula Banerjee’s interview in Live Encounters. Paula is co-author of Women in Indian Borderlands an insightful collection of research articles on the prevailing ground realities for women living along the Indo-Pak border, Indo-Burma border and the Indo-Bangladesh border.
One hopes that in the months to come civil and human rights groups in India would force the government to accept all provisions suggested by the Justice Verma Commission.
India prides itself as the world’s largest democracy. It is time to show the world that it is.
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om