The government merely gives semblance of unanimity in Cabinet but Opposition also divided over the bill
The government’s promised anti-rape bill has finally cleared the Cabinet hurdle but its smooth passage in Parliament looks highly improbable. Parties across the spectrum are already objecting to various “contentious” clauses.
Seniors in the Bharatiya Janata Party have gone public with their objection to lowering the age of consensual sex from 18 to 16 years. The Samajwadi Party has said it would be opposing the bill at both the all-party meeting on Monday and in Parliament. The SP provides outside support to the ruling coalition.
The Cabinet itself was split, although a conscious effort was made to give a semblance of unanimity over specific clauses. Said a senior minister, “It was not just the WCD minister (women and child development minister Krishna Tirath) who was opposed to reducing the age of consent. There were several of us also (opposed) but we let it go through, so that it can make it to Parliament. At least, then the Opposition cannot accuse us of dragging our feet on the Bill. Let the other political parties take a call on it; we know several of them have objections. It should be thrashed out in Parliament.”
Another senior minister described the insistence on lowering the age of sexual consent as “foisting European ideas”, which were “totally out of touch with Indian social reality”. Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, for instance, is a strong advocate of lowering the age of sexual consent to not just 16 years but to 14 years.
Several ministers confess “such a crucial piece of legislation which will have far-reaching consequences should not be passed in such haste” but they are also aware that deliberating on it too long and letting the ordinance on the subject lapse by April 4 would expose them to sharp attacks from the Opposition benches.
So the United Progressive Alliance government seems to be taking recourse to the same tactics it used during the Lokpal Bill -- after being critiqued from all quarters for delaying the bill; it hastily introduced it in Parliament despite no consensus on the issue and let parties decide its fate- the bill is still pending in Parliament.
The WCD minister reportedly gave her assent reluctantly as she has been arguing that lowering the age will be in direct contravention of the age of 18 years stipulated under the recently passed Protection of Children against Sexual Offences Bill.
Opposition party leaders like BJP’s Najma Heptullah hold the same views as the WCD minister. “How can someone say that a 16-year-old boy cannot commit rape? Won’t reducing the age from 18 to 16 encourage consensual sex among youngsters further? Rape committed at any age should be punishable. I think this is ridiculous,” said Heptullah.
Samjwadi Party’s senior leader Ramgopal Yadav was vitriolic in his attack on the bill. "We are opposed to the Bill. It has been framed on the recommendations of some mentally-retarded people," said Yadav. Senior leader Naresh Agarwal objected to the “gender specific: approach of the bill where the term ‘rape’ has been used and not the gender neutral sexual assault
Samjwadi Party chief Mayawati so far has maintained that her party was in favour of stringent laws to protect women and would in all likelihood support the bill. But what exactly the stand of other political parties will be when the bill comes up on Monday, is still unclear.
While the government is keen to have the bill tabled in Lok Sabha on Tuesday, get it passed on Wednesday and then in Rajya Sabha by Friday March 22, just making the deadline before Parliament goes into recess; government sources say that the Parliament may recommend the bill to a joint select committee.