The central government has promulgated an ordinance to provide death penalty for those convicted of rape of girls younger than 12 years. The ordinance amends the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act. The measure seeks to provide effective deterrence against rape and instill a sense of security among women, particularly young girls. It has come in the wake of the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir, the rape of a teenager in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh and similar crimes in other parts of the country. However, even as the government made amendments to the laws, crimes against girls continue unabated. In a beastly crime, a man raped a four-month-old girl in Indore in Madhya Pradesh. A lawyer travelling on a train from Thiruvanantpuram to Chennai molested a nine-year-old girl.
The legal changes provide for speedy investigation and trial of rape cases: two-month time limit for investigation, two months for completion of trial and six months for disposal of appeals. The punishment for rape of a girl younger than 12 years will be a minimum of 20 years imprisonment or imprisonment for life or death. The changes have increased punishment for rape of girls below 16 years of age to imprisonment for rest of life and for gang rape of a girl below 12 years, punishment will be jail for life or death sentence. The punishment in case of rape of women has been raised to 10 years, extendable to life imprisonment and that for rape of a girl aged below 16 has been raised from 10 to 20 years, extendable to imprisonment for rest of life – meaning imprisonment till that person’s natural life. To make it more deterrent, those accused of rape or gang rape of girls below 16 years would henceforth not be eligible for anticipatory bail. The amendments also aim at strengthening investigation and prosecution including setting up fast track courts and special forensic labs in every state, besides maintaining a national database of sexual offenders.
The strength of the ordinance lies in the severity of the punishment including death penalty. However, just because a law is made stronger, it does not necessarily mean it is going to be more effective. Deterrence with severity of penalty can work only if the system works without fear or favour to act on a complaint of rape and take the case without any partiality to the point of conviction. Though the laws were made stricter after the Nirbhaya case they failed to serve as a deterrent; there has been no let-up in rape cases against women. About 19,000 to 20,000 minor girls are raped on an average every year across the country. According to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau for the year 2016, incidents of rape of children increased by over 82 per cent as compared to 2015.
After the Nirbhaya case, changes were made to the POSCO Act to provide for life imprisonment. Death penalty was provided for in cases where the victim either dies or is left in a vegetative state after rape. However, there is no sign of the number of rapes falling. The reason is the failure of the law enforcing authorities to take immediate cognizance of the complaint. The police and politicians, more often than not, try their best to frustrate the victim’s efforts to get the perpetrator arrested, prosecuted and punished. The Unnao and Kathua cases provide a sharp contrast. In Unnao, the police did not do their duty owing to the fear and pressure of the accused who was the local MLA belonging to the ruling BJP. In Kathua, the police managed to piece together the evidence against the perpetrators of crime, but two BJP ministers and some lawyers tried to impede their investigation.
It is very obvious that the police and politicians take the Modi government’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao mission as no more than rhetoric. How can girl children live and study to grow to such heights as male children unless their dignity and life is protected by the police, politicians and the judiciary? Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao would remain an empty slogan unless it is linked to the protection of betis’ dignity and life. The policemen at the thana level have to be allowed a free hand to register and investigate every complaint of rape. Of course, a strict supervision on the investigation has to be done by their superiors, as policemen can strike a bargain with the accused. Professional approach by the police alone can make the deterrence work in rape cases.