President Pranab Mukherjee Sunday gave his approval to an ordinance that awards stricter punishment for sexual crimes against women, including death sentence in rare instances. Women's groups are, however, planning a protest against the ordinance, which they term as a "big joke".
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013, was passed by the cabinet Friday. It is based largely on former Supreme Court Chief Justice J.S. Verma's 631-page report.
Women's rights activists have slammed the ordinance as a mockery of the Verma Committee recommendations and lashed out at the government for quietly passing the ordinance without a debate or discussion.
On Saturday, they urged the president not to sign the ordinance, saying it lacks teeth to fight sexual crimes against women.
With the presidential assent, the ordinance comes into effect immediately. It has to be passed by parliament within six months.
The government Saturday said the ordinance would be open to review when it is brought before parliament.
Women's groups said they would stage a protest here Monday against the ordinance.
The Verma panel was set up by the government last month to review laws to provide speedier justice and enhanced punishment in cases of aggravated sexual assault.
This followed the country wide outrage over the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman Dec 16. The victim died in a Singapore hospital 13 days later.
The panel submitted its voluminous report to the government last week.
Activist Kavita Krishnan, secretary All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA), said the president "could have listened to the pleas of women's groups" and not signed the ordinance.
She wondered why the government was "in such a hurry to issue the ordinance".
"An ordinance is issued in a state of emergency. Where was the emergency? They basically wanted to sideline the recommendations of the Justice Verma panel," Krishnan told IANS.
"Every single recommendation has been rejected," she added.
According to provisions of the ordinance, it has kept the perpetrator of rape as gender neutral, which is not what the women's groups and the panel had recommended, said Krishnan.
The ordinance has also criminalized consensual sexual relations of those between 16-18 years, unless they are married. "This gives legal backing to moral policing... it is appalling and will interfere in relations between a boy and girl in inter-caste and inter-religious cases," she added.
The ordinance also exempts marital rape. "The woman loses the right to say yes or no," said Krishnan.
"It also leaves out automatic prosecution of judges, magistrates and army officers in cases of sexual crimes. There will be no automatic prosecution - one will have to seek sanction for it. It is not just about the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), the judge, magistrate and army officer retain impunity under the ordinance," she said.
Krishnan termed the Verma panel recommendations as "path-breaking".
She was also critical of the provision for death penalty in rarest of rare cases, saying "with the clause why will the perpetrator leave the victim alive to testify against him?"
Lawyer Rebecca John termed the ordinance a "bit of a joke".
"I don't understand why the government was in a tearing hurry to bring this ordinance. These are historic moments and opinions of people have to be considered. Moreover they (government) have instituted the Verma committee and should have deliberated upon its recommendations," John told IANS.
"This is a populist, knee-jerk ordinance which will serve no purpose and has only angered the activists," she added.
"I am protesting against the ordinance in whatever way I can and will be joining the several women's groups who are protesting against it too. We have to bring it to the notice of the parliamentarians," she said.
The activists are to hold a protest at Jantar Mantar Monday afternoon and are planning a mass signature campaign. "We want to begin a mass awareness about the provisions of the ordinance. On Feb 7 we will hold another protest rally," said Krishnan.
They are also planning to hold a "vigil" outside parliament when it meets Feb 21 for the budget session.