India toughens anti-rape laws, no mercy for sexual offenders

India is finally taking a deep, serious look at replacing the British-era laws to give them more teeth and build a legal framework that makes women feel safer and create a harsher deterrent against sexual crimes against women.

Pushed by the outrage over the brutal Delhi gang-rape, the Indian government has taken a giant step to signal its intent to overhaul the laws to protect women against sexual crimes. The Union cabinet approved an ordinance to make various laws more stern as recommended by a panel, just hours before a court in the national capital decided to put the five accused, out of the six gang-rapists, to trial for murder, gang-rape, destruction of evidence, among other charges.

Accepting most of the recommendations of a committee headed by J. S. Verma, a former chief justice of India, the ordinance seeks to broaden the basket of the crimes against women and replace “rape” with “sexual assault”, provide for punishment of up to entire life, and even death in the rarest of rare cases, make stalking and acid attack punishable, and enhance punishment for various other offences.

The meeting of the cabinet had been especially convened for the purpose. The ordinance was approved even though the Budget session of Parliament was just three weeks away to dispel the impression that the government takes long to react to situations.

The ordinance is being brought against the backdrop of the country-wide outrage against the gang-rape and brutal assault of a 23-year-old physiotherapist in Delhi in December. It will seek to amend the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the Evidence Act. The recommendation of the Cabinet now goes to President Pranab Mukherjee to promulgate the ordinance.

The changes in the existing laws have been made in tune with the recommendations of the Verma Committee, which had been formed in the wake of the gang-rape incident, besides the proposals in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2011 which is pending in the Lok Sabha.

The amendments include changing the definition of ‘rape’ to ‘sexual assault’ and enhancement of punishment from seven years up to natural life of a convict. There will be provision for 20-year imprisonment for rape, and in case of rape or gang-rape with grievous hurt, there will be provision of sentence up to the convict’s natural life.

The ordinance also seeks to amend the existing penal provisions to make acid attack a separate offence, carrying minimum punishment of 10 years which may go up to life. The punishment for using force to outrage a woman’s modesty has been enhanced from two to five years; and for indecent gesture, the punishment has been enhanced from one to three years.

Two days ago. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated in reply to a letter from Justice Verma that, “On behalf of our government, I assure you that we will be prompt in pursuing the recommendations of the Committee.”

Law minister Ashwani Kumar said recently that the Cabinet would deliberate upon the report and depending upon its view “the matter will then have to be carried through the normal parliamentary processes.” He said the ordinance will have original provisions of the criminal law amendment bill and recommendations of Justice Verma panel.

“The UPA government has responded to sensitivities of people by acting with utmost expedition,” he said, adding the provisions of the ordinance were aimed at enhancing sense of security and protection of “our mothers and sisters” and other citizens.

“It is one of the more progressive legislations. Hopefully, it will be effective. The speed with which UPA acted in the matter validated our assurance,” he said.

Informed sources said that the ordinance will be replaced by a law in the budget session of parliament expected to start in the second half of February.

The criminal law amendment bill is currently being examined by the standing committee of home ministry.

Meanwhile, the trial court has decided that five of the six accused in the gang-rape in a moving bus would stand trial for murder, gang-rape, unnatural offence, destruction of evidence, attempt to murder, kidnapping, causing hurt while committing robbery, dacoity with murder, and common intent among others.

The Juvenile Justice Board declared the sixth accused a minor last month, and his case will be heard by the board.

The five accused are Ram Singh, a bus driver, and his brother Mukesh, Pawan Gupta, a fruit seller, Vinay Sharma, a gym instructor, and Akshay Thakur, a bus cleaner. They are currently lodged in Tihar Jail in the Indian capital.