New Delhi, March 12: Differences over proposed changes to the law dealing with rape prompted the government to refer an amendment bill to a group of ministers today but the deadlock could not be resolved after the first round of discussions.
The empowered group of ministers, headed by P. Chidambaram, is scheduled to meet again tomorrow and place its views before the cabinet on Thursday. The government is then expected to call an all-party meeting next Monday and strive for a consensus before the bill is brought before Parliament.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill continues to be stuck largely because of disagreement over lowering of the age of consent for sex from 18 to 16 years. Inclusion of voyeurism and stalking as offences has also driven a wedge in the government.
The ministries of women and child development, home and law are locked in disputes over the bill.
According to sources, the government is ready to informally show the cabinet draft to senior Opposition leaders like Sushma Swaraj, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati and address their concerns.
The Congress sees merit in the differences and appreciated the government’s cautious approach to ensure that a “loose law” is not pushed through.
However, there is the sense of urgency to resolve differences within the government.
The group of ministers has a two-day mandate and Chidambaram is expected to submit a report to the cabinet on Thursday, sources said.
“We will meet again for an hour tomorrow to finalise the bill and then it will go to the cabinet on Thursday,” Chidambaram told reporters after a two-hour meeting this afternoon.
This morning, a specially convened meeting of the Union cabinet could not resolve differences over the draft bill. As two cabinet meetings failed to forge a consensus, it was decided to constitute the group of ministers.
The government wants to pass the bill to replace the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance before March 22 when Parliament will be adjourned for a month-long recess. The ordinance was promulgated on February 3 in the wake of mounting pressure for more stringent laws after the gang rape and murder of a paramedic student in the capital.
Last week, the home ministry prepared a draft to reintroduce the word “rape” to replace “sexual assault” and remove the gender-neutrality of the bill. The home ministry also wanted to lower the age of consent. But women and child development minister Krishna Tirath has strongly objected to changing the age of consent.
The law ministry is known to have aired misgivings on the possible fallout of treating voyeurism as an offence. “The concerns are about possible misuse of these provisions,” said a senior official. Some ministers have said safeguards, including harsh penalty for lodging false cases, should be included.
On the age of consent, Tirath has said that the proposal is contrary to the child marriage (prohibition) act. Experts have suggested that the lower age of consent could be misused for child trafficking for sex, labour and domestic labour.
A minister pointed out an anomaly. “The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act that put the age of consent at 18 years was passed by both houses of Parliament only last November,” the cabinet minister told The Telegraph.
Any proposal to lower the age of consent, therefore, will also necessitate an amendment to the child protection act — a possibility that sections of the government want to avoid at this juncture.