Of late, there has been an uncanny similarity in the way the Congress and the BJP have tried to do things. From the Nuclear Deal and closer ties with the US to the issue of greater foreign direct investment coming into the country, their views appear the same. They take turns to propose and oppose these moves merely based on who is in power and which party occupies the opposition at the time.
The Bill for women’s reservation in legislatures was re-introduced both by the BJP-led NDA Government—in 1998—and the Congress-led UPA Government. In fact, when the UPA introduced the Bill in its first term in 2008, it was termed rather crudely by its opponents as a ‘Sonia-Sushma Bill’. Yet, nearly five years later, the Bill is yet to become law. While it was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010, it is still pending in the Lok Sabha—the House in which the two parties together hold more than 300 seats. Clearly then, despite their convergence on the matter, if the two parties have not been able to pass the Bill, it is not because of a lack of numbers, but lack of intent. The parties want to appear to fix inequalities rather than actually fixing them.
This is also apparent in their response to the issue of women’s safety. It illustrates clearly how the Congress prefers symbolic gestures to taking concrete steps, and how the BJP has ended up looking like the B-team of the ruling party. While Congress President Sonia Gandhi promised a flat and a job to the family of the 16 December Delhi gang-rape and murder victim, the BJP’s Delhi leadership named a science museum after her. But when it comes to the issue that really matters, the UPA has brought in an ordinance that is a mere re-jig of an already pending Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill in Parliament that pre-dates the gang-rape. The lessons that are apparent in the publicity that has surrounded the incident have been ignored. The ordinance has been framed as if the incident never happened.
After the gruesome gangrape and the protests that followed, the Congress-led Government had appointed the Justice Verma Committee to review existing laws and suggest amendments to criminal law to effectively deal with instances of sexual violence. Looking back, as it now appears, the Government would have been happier if the committee had asked for extension after extension, which such committees and commissions are wont to do. There is a long history of complicity between governments and commissions, and the delaying tactics they use to relegate burning issues to the forgotten corners of public memory are all too well known.
The Verma Committee, however, submitted its recommendations in less than the 30-day stipulated period. It did not view its mandate as only drafting new laws. It placed its mandate within the framework of the Constitution to make India a better place for women, and submitted an integrated report aimed at all-round improvement.
It is not out of mere habit or mindless activism that women’s groups are protesting the contents of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013. Their protests are a reaction to the dirty game that the Government has played in keeping out certain key recommendations of the committee. They aver that the ordinance does not make women feel safer because it keeps out changes that would have held powerful perpetrators of sexual violence accountable rather than accept their excuses. The ordinance excludes the committee’s recommendations on recognising marital non-consensual sexual intercourse as an offence and doing away with prosecution sanction for public servants, magistrates, judges and legislators in cases of crimes against women. The committee would make a senior military officer liable for sexual violence committed by those below him in the force’s chain of command, but the ordinance has rejected this recommendation. Instead, it criminalises consensual sex between the age of 16 and 18 years, classifying it as ‘rape’ and arming the moral police.
For its share of jingoism, the Government has thrown in the death penalty for barbaric cases of rape that lead either to the death of the victim or her slipping into a persistent vegetative state. The Verma Committee had carefully considered the provision and kept this penalty out, but the Government felt it necessary to listen to placard-wielding mobs rather than a committee of jurists appointed for the purpose. Incidentally, most women’s groups want the death penalty kept out of the law. Both the Congress-run Government and the BJP are not really interested in keeping women safe, but only in claiming credit for making the right noises.