In the process of wooing women with its anti-rape legislation, UPA ministers have warned that the Congress could end up alienating the Muslims. Sunita Moga reports
The raging controversy over the provision in the anti-rape Bill lowering the age of consent for sex from 18 to 16 years has acquired a fresh twist.
The age of consent was retained at 16 years despite sharp divisions in the Union Cabinet after several ministers pointed out that keeping the age at 18 years would not be acceptable to the Muslim community as its personal laws allow girls to get married after they attain puberty.
The Congress-led government predictably did not want to take any step, which would alienate the minorities close to next year’s crucial Lok Sabha elections.
Realising that the Congress is particularly vulnerable on this front as it goes all-out to woo the minorities in the run-up the 2014 general election, the Bharatiya Janata Party is now opposing the anti-rape Bill on the plea that the provision on consent of age for sexual engagement would encourage promiscuity among youngsters, lead to unsafe sex and teen pregnancies.
The principal opposition party had initially decided to support the Bill, but is now raising these objections as it smells an opportunity to corner the UPA government. It is, therefore, trotting out these arguments to embarrass the ruling coalition.
Senior BJP leaders, including Leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, are saying that their party will be willing to support the Bill if this clause is excluded for the present and placed in the public domain for a more informed and wider debate.
The BJP will explain its position at the all-party meeting called by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath on Monday to evolve a consensus on this Bill. The Left parties have objected to the Bill as martial rape, has not been recognized as an offence in the Bill.
The “Muslim angle” is bound to appeal to the Samajwadi Party which can be expected to use this provision to scuttle the Bill. The SP, which lends crucial outside support to the UPA government, had made it clear before the beginning of the ongoing Parliament session that it did not agree with the provisions of the anti-rape ordinance which is being replaced with a Bill.
Maintaining that the Bill’s harsh provisions would be misused, SP leader Ram Gopal Yadav has put forth an unusual argument to oppose the Bill. Describing the proposed legislation as being “anti-women”, Yadav has said it will actually reduce employment opportunities for women as employers would be wary of hiring women because of the possible misuse of this law. He even went as far as to say that it would lead to segregation of women where you will be required to have separate markets, roads and offices for women.
Given this scenario, the UPA government could find itself in a difficult spot if the proposed legislation does not meet with approval of the opposition parties. Faced with unprecedented public anger following the Delhi gang rape incident last December, the ruling coalition had gone into an overdrive to tighten the laws dealing with sexual assault and security of women. Congress President Sonia Gandhi had personally pushed the government in this direction with the aim of garnering the support of women.
But in the process of wooing women, UPA ministers have warned that the Congress could end up alienating the Muslims. A senior Congress minister is learnt to have told his Cabinet colleagues that by keeping the age of consent for sex at 18 years, it will imply that a marriage of a Muslim girl below that age would be deemed to be rape.
“These are sensitive and personal matters… how can the state intervene in the sexual lives of people,” the minister argued, adding that any move to make an exception in the case of Muslims will attract the ire of other communities who will also cite their personal laws.
It was stated that communities are allowed their personal laws although criminal laws apply equally to all citizens.
The minister pointed out that the Delhi high court had ruled last year on the basis of the Sharia that a Muslim girl is allowed to marry after she attains puberty and the verdict was welcomed by the community.
Others favoured lowering of age of consent to 16 years on the ground that girls are maturing much earlier and it would not be right to criminalize sexual activity between consenting teens. International conventions were also cited to buttress this argument.
Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath had argued against this, stating that this would contradict the provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill where the age had been fixed at 18 years. She was eventually overruled.