India’s politicians cannot take too much reality. The one certain sign of this is the Centre’s decision to ignore the J.S. Verma committee’s recommendation that marital rape be considered a crime. This recommendation struck at the heart of patriarchal aggression. That the government rejected it suggests that the invisible structures of gender hierarchy are yet to be breached, even though there is obvious urgency on the government’s part to set the right ball rolling.
It would not be fair to crib about urgency after criticizing the establishment’s lackadaisical attitude to crimes against women. The government’s visible eagerness to discuss the Verma committee recommendations is, perhaps, little less than historic, since committee reports in India are better-known for gathering dust on inaccessible shelves. Yet the wary will ask whether haste is a good thing in the matter of laying down the law regarding actions that inhabit the shadowy and turbulent region of intimate and violent physicality, overt and covert power, oppression, gender, personhood, fear, hatred, destruction, unequal perceptions and politics.
But if haste can be criticized, urgency cannot. So the government’s decision to formulate an ordinance on sexual crime to be sent to the president for approval is to be seen, presumably, as its sensitive response to nationwide protests against the Delhi gangrape in December. Ordinances are an emergency measure for the most acute need when Parliament is not sitting. The next session is less than three weeks away. How acute was the need for the decision on sexual crimes? As acute as the government’s need to be seen reacting sympathetically to people’s protests? That would partly explain why capital punishment has been left in as an option for those convicted of ‘aggravated’ rape, although the Verma committee rejected it. By including capital punishment as an option, the Centre seems to have ignored the possibility that the death penalty could lower the rate of conviction. And that is just one of the arguments against death for rapists.
But there is much to be thankful for, especially if this haste signals greater promptitude and proper method in responding to crimes against women. The acceptance of the recommendations regarding stalking or voyeurism is encouraging too, although there should be safeguards put in to ensure that innocent people are not victimized or blackmailed in such cases. The doubt about the nature of the government’s impulse springs from its flat rejection of radical changes — not just in the case of marital rape but also in the case of army personnel accused of rape. The deeper structure is being left untouched. In that context, the substitution of ‘sexual assault’ for ‘rape’, a change the Verma committee had argued against, is a little worrying. Indians can only hope this will not mean dilution.