M A I N   N E W S

PM refers anti-rape Bill to Group of Ministers
Aditi Tandon
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, March 12
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today referred the contentious anti-rape Bill to the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) after the Cabinet failed to reach an agreement on its key provisions and clauses.

While the EGoM headed by Finance Minister P Chidambaram is expected to submit its report by Thursday, the government has convened an all-party meeting on Monday to strike a consensus on the draft law. The draft law contains several contentious provisions, particularly making rape a gender-specific crime, lowering the age of consent for sexual engagement from 18 to 16 years and providing for voyeurism and stalking as new offences.

But an even more contentious provision that the Prime Minister was today apprised of by a senior Cabinet Minister relates to how the provision of age of consent under the anti-rape law would impact the Muslims whose religious law allows girls to marry once they attain the age of puberty.

Sections of the Muslim community are believed to have raised concerns over the fixing of age of consent in the criminal law of the land.

A senior Cabinet minister said: “If you have the age of consent at 18 or 16 years, you are effectively implying that any marriage of a Muslims girl below that age is rape. That’s highly controversial and will have to be talked through with all parties especially the BSP and the SP. If you make an exception for the Muslims in the Bill, the other communities may object. It’s a tricky spot.”

In its 2012 ruling, the Delhi High Court had said a Muslim girl can marry once she attains the age of puberty. Muslim religious leaders across the country had welcomed the verdict which was based on the “Sharia”, the moral code and religious law of Islam.

While Indian criminal laws apply equally to all, communities are allowed their own personal laws. Under the Muslim law, a girl can marry without the consent of her parents once she attains the age of puberty and puberty these days comes as early as 12 and 13 years.

While this is a fresh issue, Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath today objected to lowering the age of consent to 16, saying the age had been fixed at 18 years in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill-2012 after deliberations had been held with experts, and the parliamentary standing committee had cleared the idea.

Law Minister Ashwani Kumar told the TNS the Bill would be brought to Parliament early next week once the EGOM had prepared a draft law after consideration. He has also briefed Congress president Sonia Gandhi on the Bill.

“The issue of age of consent is being debated. Also there is a feeling that inbuilt protections are necessary in the Bill in respect of new offences such as voyeurism and stalking and we are working to bring them in. The idea is to prevent misuse. The issue of gender specificity of rape is also being debated and we are hopeful of a consensus being reached very soon,” Kumar said.

Other Cabinet ministers, however, said they were given a copy of the draft law only a day before the Cabinet meeting and several clauses of the Bill were loosely worded and needed to be ironed out. “We are reading each provision word by word to make the Bill sustainable in courts,” a senior minister said.

The EGOM comprises Ashwani Kumar, Krishna Tirath, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and Social Justice Minister Kumari Selja.

Bill may go to Select Committee

The anti-rape Bill may be referred to the Select Committee of Parliament considering lack of consensus on its key provisions. Since the Bill has to replace an ordinance, it must be passed by March 22, when six weeks from the assembly of Parliament will lapse. A senior minister says the Bill may be referred to the Select Committee and brought back in the next session of Parliament.





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