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New-age pangs in old BJP

- MP calls for age of consent debate based on ‘logic’
Lekhi

New Delhi, July 22: BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi today advocated an amendment to lower the age of consensual sex, pointing out that the age of maturity had come down because of exposure to media and the Internet — a view that clashes with that of her party.

“My suggestion is that there should be an amendment to the IPC so that if there are cases of consensual sex among people of certain age group, that should not be criminalised. In fact, it should be de-criminalised under the Protection of Child Rights Act,” Lekhi told the Lok Sabha while asking a supplementary question to home minister Rajnath Singh.

The suggestion appeared to have placed Rajnath in a tough spot. The home minister confined himself to saying the suggestion would be looked into.

The current age of consent is 18. Lekhi did not propose a specific age while making her suggestion.

Child rights activists pointed out that the phrase “age of consent” was often confused with the “age at which one is allowed to consent to sex”. In criminal law, it means the age below which “consent” will not be a valid defence against a rape charge. Under the prevailing law, if a man is accused of raping a girl aged between 16 and 18, he will be convicted even if the girl tells the court she had consented.

The age of consent under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was 16 years. It was raised to 18 following an amendment to the anti-rape law after the December 16 gang rape and murder in Delhi.

Lekhi’s opinion clashes with that of the BJP, which had opposed lowering the age when the matter was debated during the UPA’s term.

Lekhi appealed to the new government to take a balanced view keeping in mind the twin issues of crime against women as well as consensual sex.

“There are two situations. One is due to exposure… the age of sexual maturity is going down because of which the crime pertaining to women is on the increase. The second situation is, because of this maturity, there is the consensual sex issue also,” Lekhi said.

Lekhi’s suggestion comes against the backdrop of demands from sections of the government and the BJP to lower the age of juvenility in criminal cases. The BJP is in favour of lowering the age of juvenility but against lowering the age of consensual sex.

Rajnath, the home minister, avoided a reply on the age of consensual sex but said: “The suggestion of the honourable member pertaining to lowering the age of juvenile criminals is dealt by the women and child development ministry. Anyway, whatever suggestion the member has made would be looked into.”

Contacted later, Lekhi acknowledged that it was her “personal opinion” and said that her intervention was “impromptu” as she strongly feels there should be a debate on the issue in Parliament.

“Let there be a debate. A debate based on logic,” Lekhi said, asked about her views clashing with the BJP line.

The MP said she preferred harmonising the laws of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act and the Juvenile Justice Act.

“My argument is that if a boy of 16 years understands the implications of committing a rape, then a girl of 16 years, too, understands the implications of independent decision-making,” Lekhi said.

The issue had exposed fissures in the UPA government, too. The then women and child development minister, Krishna Tirath, wanted the age of consensual sex kept at 18 while the home and law ministries had preferred 16.

While Tirath won that round, activists raised concerns over Pocso criminalising teen sex.

“The age of consent was always 16 years before Pocso. What Pocso has done is that it has brought much of the exploratory sex that teens indulge in under the purview of law. If the BJP is thinking of restoring the age of consent to 16 years, it will be a great thing,” said Anant Kumar Asthana, a child rights activist and lawyer.