ByVishwa Mohan, TNN Mar 12, 2013, 11.10 AM IST
NEW DELHI: Differences of opinion over the draft Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill - seeking to reintroduce the word 'rape' instead of 'sexual assault' in the anti-rape law and lower the age of consensual sex from 18 to 16 — forced the government to defer it again on Tuesday, second time in six days.
The special cabinet, called to discuss the issue, referred the Bill to the empowered group of ministers (EGoM) to sort out differences within the government. It is learnt that the age of consent - lowering it from 18 to 16 - is the major hitch as the ministry of women and child development is not fully convinced of the proposal of the home ministry.
Finance minister P Chidambaram will head the EGoM which will try to finalise the draft Bill as early as possible because the government is supposed to pass new legislation — replacing the existing Ordinance — before March 22 when both the Houses of Parliament adjourn for a month-long recess.
It is learnt that the law ministry has expressed reservations over the home ministry's draft replacing 'sexual assault' with 'rape' while the ministry of women and child development expressed strong reservation against bringing down the age of consent from 18 to 16 years.
"The Bill has to stand the scrutiny of Parliament and later judiciary. A consensus is must for the government before moving ahead. In all likelihood, the draft Bill will not undergo major changes now and will soon be brought before Cabinet," said an official.
The home ministry's draft has, in fact, reversed what the previous Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012 and the Ordinance on Criminal Law, 2013 had done in the case of the two contentious provisions and preferred to go by the recommendation of the Justice JS Verma committee's recommendation which insists on retaining the word 'rape' in the law.
The ordinance — making the anti-rape law much more stringent — was promulgated by the President on February 3 in the wake of public outrage over the December 16 gang-rape of Nirbhaya. Making sexual crimes gender neutral, the ordinance replaced 'rape' with 'sexual assault' in tune with provisions of the pending Bill.
The EGoM has to bring the fresh draft before the Cabinet as early as possible because government needs to bring it to Parliament within six weeks of the ordinance getting promulgated.
Bringing down the age of consent from 18 to 16 years is opposed by the WCD ministry since it will be run contrary to a recent law protecting children from sexual offences and the Child Marriage (Prohibition) Act.
The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, which was passed by Parliament last year, was enacted following recommendations by a parliamentary panel and a range of experts suggesting that the age of consent provision was being misused for child trafficking for sex, labour and domestic work. The WCD ministry had also reasoned that the provision was used to slap false cases against young couples who were targeted for not conforming to social norms.
The ministry had faced the wrath of child rights activists at the time who felt that stringent punishment like life imprisonment for sexual assault could be used to criminalize teenage sex, making any intercourse below 18 years of age an offence under this law.