New Delhi: Bowing to political pressure against lowering the age of consent for sex to 16 years, the government Monday approved the anti-rape bill by agreeing to stick to 18 years, but women activists said the provision could be misused.
The cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister, met again Monday evening to take up the bill after a consensus over the issue was arrived at during two rounds of an all-party meeting earlier in the morning.
The all-party meet had at first failed to reach any consensus following major differences over the government's bid to bring the age of consent to 16 years.
According to government sources, the cabinet agreed to stick to 18 years as age of consent following suggestions at the all-party meeting. They said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) were among the parties which had reservations over lowering the age of consent to 16.
The sources said that the age of consent was 16 years under the Indian Penal Code but was raised to 18 in the anti-rape ordinance promulgated by the government in February this year.
However, following inter-ministerial consultations, the government thought of lowering it to 16 in the proposed Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013.
At the all-party meeting, several political parties suggested the age of consent should be 18 years since the minimum age of marriage for girls was also 18, sources said.
The sources said the government was now confident this version of the anti-rape bill, which will be introduced in the Lok Sabha Tuesday, will be passed in this session.
The cabinet had first approved the anti-rape bill March 14 following a Group of Ministers' suggestion to bring the age of consent to 16.
"We have introduced changes suggested by various political parties. We hope to pass the bill Tuesday in the Lok Sabha," Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath told reporters after the cabinet approved the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013.
The government also made voyeurism and stalking punishable under pressure from various parties like Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal- United and Bharatiya Janata Party, who had reservations over these points.
"Consensual sex with a girl under 18 years will be treated as rape," said another government source.
Under this provision, a minor who is accused of gender crime will have to undergo a probation of one year as punishment for the first offence but will be charged with rape if he is booked for a second time.
Water Resource Minister Harish Rawat said the anti-rape bill was cleared after "all factors" were considered.
"There were political parties who had opposed bringing the age of consent from 18 to 16 as they felt it was not desirable socially," Rawat said.
He said the government had taken into account women activists' views on age of consent.
Women activists had argued that girls in rural areas were still married at young age and it would not be proper to criminalise matrimonial relations in such cases, and hence urged the government to fix the age of consent at 16 years.
Shocked by the government's u-turn, the All-India Progressive Women's Association chief Kavita Krishnan said the decision to retain 18 years would be misused.
"A young boy under 18 will get a 'one time probation' for consensual sex. This is most inadequate (protection), since any third party (parents or khaps) can claim he violated the probation and get him convicted for rape," she said.
She also said keeping the age of consent at 18 could be used against the oppressed castes also.
The bill also proposes death penalty in the rarest of rare cases for rape and for repeat offenders.
It incorporates suggestions of the Justice J.S. Verma Committee formed to make the anti-rape laws stronger.
The issue has been in focus after the gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi Dec 16 last year. She died of grievous injuries 13 days later.
The anti-rape bill will replace the ordinance promulgated by President Pranab Mukherjee Feb 3. It has to be passed by April 4.