While the union cabinet has approved the bill to strengthen anti-rape laws, its provision to lower the age for consensual sex to 16 years may snag the bill with many political parties, and even the women and child development ministry, raising objections.
The bill provides for lowering the age for consensual sex to 16 years from 18 years. Though it will not be an entirely new concept as the age of consent for sex has been 16 years under the Indian Penal Code since 1893, there are apprehensions even within the government.
The draft legislation has been approved by the union cabinet, and an all-party meeting to discuss it is scheduled for Monday.
Woman and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath has opposed the decision, saying it may not give the “correct message” to society.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, however, chosen to keep its cards closed.
“We have not seen all provisions of the bill and whether it upholds the Verma Committee’s report. We will disclose our stand only in the meeting tomorrow (March 18),” BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman told IANS.
However, sources from the party said it may not agree to lowering the age of consent from 18 years to 16 years.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) welcomed lowering the age for consensual sex, adding that some safeguards were needed with it.
“The Justice Verma Committee report was very comprehensive and had made very valuable recommendations. However, the ordinance brought out by the government was inadequate and diluting many of the recommendations,” CPI-M MP T.N. Seema told IANS.
She welcomed making 16 years age the legal age for consensual sex, but added that it should include that the man should not be more than five years older than the girl.
“Regarding the age of consent for sex, it is indisputable that boys and girls under the legal age of marriage do make friendships which may lead to love affairs, some of which may end up in some form of sexual relationship through mutual consent. Although we may not encourage this, there should not be any scope for criminalising the youth engaging in consensual sex,” she said.
“There should be some safeguard like the law commission’s suggestion that the man should not be more than five years older to the girl to ensure that there is no coercion or power relation in getting consent from the girl,” she said.
The CPI-M member also suggested that a rape of a Dalit or tribal women by non-Dalits and non-tribals should be considered aggravated crime with enhanced punishment. She demanded inclusion of marital rape and keeping sexual crimes committed by defence and para-military forces under the general law for prosecution by the courts and not by the military courts.
The Samajwadi Party (SP), which supports the government from outside, has said it will not support the bill. Party leader Ram Gopal Yadav has expressed reservations over the provisions that make stalking an offence.
The other major party supporting the Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party, has not disclosed its stand on the bill, saying that the decision would be taken by party chief Mayawati.