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This law has barely clocked a year. We have not seen how it has worked and we don’t have enough data yet to review the law. Is the law harsh, or is it being abused or misused, we don’t know. Really, a review of a legislation can’t take place because one high-profile upper-class man gets arrested for rape. That’s not, to my mind, a rationale for research, academic scholarship or for any legal review of the case. The motivations for everybody suddenly asking this question and even using totally misplaced and misconceived words like ‘draconian’ is coming from the fact that the law has come too close to home now. As long as it was the people living on the fringes of society, the slum-dwellers, migrant workers, domestic helps, we couldn’t care less. In fact, if anybody was objecting to the death penalty for rape, it was in fact the women’s groups.
I have always maintained that law is a very small answer to the bigger problem of sexual violence that we have. There are multiple other engagements we need to develop, including conversations in schools, society, everywhere. But why has the panic about this law set in suddenly? I’d like to know that when amendments were taking place and there was a robust public debate around them on a daily basis—unlike many others, this law was amended in full public glare—we were articulating clearly what we wanted in the law. The Verma Committee clearly put it down in writing. Most people applauded the change. In the last one year, sexual harassment charges have been levelled against people in very high offices. So suddenly, it appears that the law can be applied across the board. But that’s what laws are about, they are equal to all.
I think that after the Nirbhaya case, women are reaching out for justice. So far, this violence was taking place undercover, but now they have the strength to speak out. And so the panic has set in. The law has recognised sexual violence in all its forms. If you were to push your tongue or fingertips into a woman’s vagina without her consent, prior to the amendment in 2013, it would have amounted to outraging the modesty of a woman, a low-level crime, a bailable offence carrying a minor sentence. Everybody was fine with it. But now, women are saying, ‘It’s my body, my right, please don’t have anything to do with it without my consent’. Penetration by penis is a patriarchal framing of the law. If a man pushes his fingers or a bottle in, can it be any less traumatising than a penile penetration? So, why should there be a gradation? If we are looking at it from the perspective of women’s bodily integrity, this is the only framing of the law that you can have. The law has just broken down sexual offences into many parts and sentencing moves accordingly depending on the gravity of harm and crime—a rationale flowing through the Indian penal code. This is the norm also across the world. India has not done anything bizarre. Look at the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 in UK—it actually gives life imprisonment for any kind of penetrative sexual assault by any part of the body or object—whether it’s a penis, finger or a stick.
The sentence says seven years and in the case of Tarun Tejpal, it’s an aggravated rape because, by his own admission and by the statement of the complainant, he was in a position of dominance, trust and authority having known her father, as well as being her boss. These are statements of fact. The law has expanded the coercive circumstances to include these categories. Nothing dramatic has happened now, but everyone is getting very anxious. I’m very puzzled at the high level of anxiety from men in all professions. Is it really that men are doing this so rampantly that they are suddenly in panic mode? That they have been putting their body parts into women without their consent? In that case I have a word of advice to them: now this is the law, don’t do it, and if you do it, you will be arrested. And if the courts deem it fit, you’ll be punished. That’s a hard-won reality. The new law just clarified what consent meant. It said there has to be an unequivocal, voluntary agreement by word or gesture. In the case of Tarun Tejpal, the victim is saying to him, ‘Don’t do it, stop it’. How can that message not go across? If you continue to do it, then I’m sorry, it’s a crime.
The problem is, men don’t know how to hear no, they don’t think women have a right over their bodies. But women will now assert themselves. If that’s going to create trouble, let it. If there is confusion and chaos, then that is the way forward. To a saner kind of stability.
(As told to Priyadarshini Sen)