Rehauling Sexual Assault Law in India

Comments on the Proposed Amendments to Criminal Law

The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2010 has been made available.  The Bill contains proposed amendments to two laws: the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code. The former is a substantive law while the latter is a procedural law. In other words, the Penal Code states what would constitute and offence and what the punishment for such offence would be. The Criminal Procedure Code, on the other hand,  specifies the procedure required to be followed to implement the law laid down in the Penal Code.

The Bill, inter alia, redefines rape by proposing to amend Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code in the following terms:

A man is said to commit ‘sexual assault’  if he –

(a) penetrates the vagina, the anus or urethra or mouth of any woman with

(i) any part of his body; or

(ii) any object manipulated by such man

except where such penetration is carried out for proper hygienic or medical purposes;

(b) manipulates any part of the body of woman so as to cause penetration into the vagina, the anus or the urethra of the offender by any part of the woman’s body;

(c) introduces any part of his penis into the mouth of woman,

under the circumstances falling under any of the following six descriptions:-

Firstly.-Against her will.

Secondly.- Without her consent

Thirdly.- With her consent when such consent has been obtained by putting her or any person in whom she is interested, in fear of death or of hurt.

Fourthly.- With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes to be lawfully married.

Fifthly.-With her consent when, at the time of giving such consent, by reason of unsoundness of mind or intoxication or the administration by him personally or through another of any stupefying or unwholesome substance, she is unable to understand the nature and consequences of that action to which she gives consent.

The exception for medical/hygienic purposes in Section375(a), however, doesn’t seem to require consent. What this would mean is that if the penetration were for medical purposes, and such purposes are not defined, the doctor, would not be required to obtain the consent of the woman so as to avoid falling foul of the provisions of this section if the proposed amendment were to become law. This, of course, could be considered to fly in the fact of the lived experiences of many women. It completely denies the existence of medical rape. It would also seem to exclude from the scope of sexual assault such things as medical students performing pelvic exams on unconscious women without their consent. While it is possible to see the requirement for such an exception, it is difficult to understand why the exception does not state: “except where such penetration is carried out for proper hygienic or medical purposes with the consent of the woman.”

After defining sexual assault, the proposed amendment then states the punishment for sexual assault and lists specific sexual assaults which would be dealt with in a stricter manner in Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code. Under Section 376(1), sexual assault would normally be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may be for life and, possibly, also a fine. Under Section 376(2), sexual assault by certain persons and/or under certain circumstances would be treated more seriously. Specifically:

Whoever,-

(a) being a police officer commits sexual assault -

(i) within the limits of the police station to which he is appointed; or

(ii) in the premises of any station house whether or not situated in the police station to which he is appointed; or

(iii) on a women in his custody or in the custody of a police officer subordinate to him; or

(b) being a public servant, takes advantage of his official position and commits sexual assault on a woman or minor in his custody as such public servant or in the custody of a public servant subordinate to him; or

(c) being on the management or on the staff of a jail, remand home or other place of custody established by or under any law for the time being in force or of a women’s or children’s institution takes advantage of his official position and commits sexual assault on any women or minor inmate of such jail, remand home, place or institution; or

(d) being on the management or on the staff of a hospital, takes advantage of his official position and commits sexual assault on a woman in that hospital; or

(e) being relative of, or person in a position of trust or authority towards, the women assaulted commits sexual assault with such woman; or

(f) commits sexual assault on a woman knowing her to be pregnant; or

(g) commits sexual assault on a woman when such woman is under eighteen years of age; or

(h) commits gang sexual assault,

(i) being in a position of economic or social or political dominance commits sexual assault on a woman under such dominance, or

(j) commits sexual assault on a woman suffering from mental and physical disability, or

(k) while committing sexual assault causes grievous bodily harm, maims or disfigures or endangers the life of a woman, or

(l) commits persistent sexual assault,

shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than ten years but which may be imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.

Thus, Section 376(2), if passed, would be an enhanced version of the current law as it introduces some new provisions such as that which deals with sexual assault by relatives.

Further, in the case of certain persons such as those who are in positions of authority or are public servants, sexual intercourse which does not amount to sexual assault would also be an offence under Section 376B of the Indian Penal Code in specified circumstances. If the perpetrator had taken advantage of his position and induced or seduced any woman either in his custody or under his charge or present in the premises and has sexual intercourse with her, the sexual intercourse would amount to sexual assault. The punishment for such an offence would be either simple or rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years but shall not be less than 5 years and, possibly, also a fine.

There has also been proposed an amendment to the Indian Penal Code (Section 376A) to deal with the sexual intercourse by a husband upon his wife during separation. Under this provision:

Whoever commits sexual assault with his own wife, who is living separately under a decree of separation or under any custom or usage without her consent shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, for a term which shall not be less than two years but which may be extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine.

Despite the hype about the proposed amendments regarding rape being gender-neutral, it is clear from Sections such as 376(2) that many of the provisions are gender-specific. For example, sexually assaulting a disabled woman would, at least theoretically, under Section 376(2)(j) result in an enhanced punishment but there would be no such enhancement of the punishment if the victim were male.

Also, the provision of Section 376(2)(g) which states that those who commit “sexual assault on a woman when such woman is under eighteen years of age” is unclear. It has also been proposed to add a Section (dealt with later in this post) which deals with the sexual assault of minors with a minor being defined as a person who is under the age of 18. Section 376(2)(g) deals with the sexual assault of women in this same age group. It is not clear why it has been thought to be necessary to have two provisions which deal with the sexual assault of female minors, or which Section would actually apply in such a case.

One explanation would be that Section 376(2)(g) actually intends to deal with the age of consent. However, if this is the intention, it is not truly reflected by the wording of the law. Assuming that Section 376(2)(g) lays down the age of consent for women and states that it is 18 years of age, whether this age is too high is debatable. What appears to be a lacuna here, however, is that the age of the man is not taken into consideration at all. There should probably have been a proviso inserted into this clause which so that it would come into effect only if the other person involved was “x” number of years older than the complainant/victim. In other words, it is probably not ideal to have a law which states that if one person was 18, and the other 19, the consent of the 18 year old would be immaterial since, presumably, the reason for having an age of consent is to protect minors from adults, and not from other minors or from persons who are at the threshold of majority.

The provision which is proposed to be inserted into the Penal Code to deal with the sexual abuse of minors states:

(1) A person is said to commit ‘sexual abuse of minor’ against a minor under the age of eighteen years if the person-

(i) penetrates his penis into the vagina, the anus or urethra or the mouth of a minor;

(ii) manipulates any object or part of his or her body or that of the minor so as to cause penetration into the vagina, the anus or urethra or mouth of any minor with or without the will or consent of the minor.

Explanation-Mere penetration is a sexual assault within the meaning of this section.

(2) Whoever commits any offence of sexual abuse of minor shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but which may extend to imprisonment for life.

(3) Whoever, with sexual intent, invites, counsels or incites or exhibits pornography a minor to touch, directly or indirectly, with a part of the body or with an object, the body of any minor, including the body of the person who so invites, counsels or incites, or touches, with sexual intent, directly or indirectly, with a part of the body or with an object, any part of the body of a minor, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description which may extend to ten years.

(4) In this section,- (a) ‘minor’ means —  a person under eighteen years of age.

There have been discussions about the need for such an amendment to the law for many years now. So far, it has only been possible to deal with child abuse under the existing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which deals with so-called unnatural offences. The Section has been notorious for its widespread misuse — consenting adult homosexuals have routinely reported being threatened with its implementation since the Section makes homosexual acts an offence even if they are between consenting adults.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, it has also been proposed to amend the Criminal Procedure Code so implement the changes in the Penal Code. Strangely enough, with respect to child sexual assault, the following amendment has been proposed:

198B. No court shall take cognizance of an offence punishable under sub-section (2) or sub-section (3) of section 376C of the Indian Penal Code, except upon a police report of facts which constitute such offence or upon a complaint made by the person aggrieved by the offence or by his father, mother, brother, sister or by his father’s or mother’s brother or sister or by any other person related to him by blood or adoption, if so permitted by the court.

This means that in cases of child sexual abuse, a complaint may only be filed by the victim or certain relatives of the victim. It does not seem realistic to expect a child to file, or even be able to file, a complaint. And, considering the way in which child sexual abuse, particularly when the abuser is a relative, is veiled in Indian society, it is extremely difficult to understand why relatives would be listed as the only possible complainants other than the victim. Under this provision, it appears that a complaint cannot be made by such persons as doctors and other health-care providers, caregivers or educators who may, in fact, be in a better position than relatives to make such a complaint.

Once a complaint has been made though, and the trial is in progress, it has been proposed to insert a provision into the Criminal Procedure Code which would allow the judge to take appropriate measures to ensure that the alleged minor victim of sexual assault or any other sexual offence is not confronted by the accused, although the court must also uphold the right of cross-examination of the accused.

Thus, although the aim seems to be to redefine and restructure sexual assault law in India, the proposed amendment, as it now stands, is not without its flaws.

By Nandita Saikia

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