An Open Letter to PM by women’s groups questions the efficacy of the laws on sexual assault, the inadequacies of which may weaken the case against the perpetrators in the Guwahati assault of 20-year-old woman
By Team FI
Even as outrage is being expressed across the nation at the Guwahati mob assault on a 20-year-old woman, and questions are being raised about the media involvement and complicity, a collective of women’s groups, human rights organisations and individuals have sent an open letter to the Prime Minister, calling attention to the inadequacies in the country’s laws on sexual violence which might very well weaken the case against the perpetrators of this atrocity.
On 9th May, at 9.30 pm, outside a pub near Guwahati’s Christian Basti area, a 20-year-old woman was stripped, molested, beaten up by a nearly 50-strong mob, even as reporters from television channels filmed the assault. The police reportedly arrived at 10.10 pm and rescued the girl. The video footage shows the mob reaching out into the police van filled with armed cops and harassing the girl. The National Commission of Women panel who visited the girl at the residence stated that marks of severe injuries were found on her, including cigarette burns all over her body.
Twelve out of the mob were identified – and four arrests have been made so far – Dhanraj Basfar, a sweeper, Puspendu Das, a shopkeeper, Md Habijuddin, and 18-year-old Bikash Tiwari. Those identified but not arrested are Rubul Ali, Debo Das, a man with the surname Baruah, Dipak Dey an auto driver, Tinku Deb and Bablu. One of the main accused who is seen smiling at the video camera even as he hit and molested the girl was identified as Amarjyoti Kalita.
The accused have been booked under Sec 341 (wrongful restraint) 143 (unlawful assembly), 294 (obscene act), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 354 (assault or criminal force on a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty) of IPC. The Open Letter points out that, “At present only 2 provisions of the Indian Penal Code primarily deal with the issue of sexual violence against women. Sec. 376 IPC punishes rape and Sec. 354 IPC punishes outraging the ‘modesty’ of a woman. Sec. 354 IPC applies to routine incidents of molestation and certainly does not respond to aggravated sexual assault by a mob, accompanied by public stripping and parading. There is no penal provision to redress the harm, injury, humiliation and trauma suffered by the young woman in Guwahati when she was assaulted by a group of men, or indeed countless attacks similar to this reported from different parts of India. Yet it is this penal provision which the police and court will have to base their charge upon. Sec. 354 IPC offers no commensurate penalty – nor is a deterrent. It is a bailable offence and allows the Court to award a maximum of 2 year imprisonment or at its discretion, a mere fine as a minimum sentence.”
The letter points out the inadequacy of the IPC which “leaves unacknowledged a host of crimes of sexual assault. The law attaches gravity only to rape i.e penile penetration of the vagina. All other forms of sexual assault find no specific mention and fall into the residue category of Sec. 354 IPC, which trivialises the crimes.”
The Letter points out that for the past twenty years the women’s movement has been pushing for the need for law reform. The Home Ministry’s response to this was the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2010, which was welcomed by the women’s groups who organised national consultations with “women’s rights, child rights, human rights groups, scholars, lawyers etc. and formulated an alternative draft Bill…The draft bill submitted by women’s rights groups in 2010 had, therefore, graded offences into categories of sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault and sexual offences, based on the concepts of harm, injury, humiliation and degradation.”
The delegation that presented the draft bill was assured of a national consultation on the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2010. However, though the Child Sexual Offences Bill was passed, the Letter states that “despite our repeated reminders and requests no progress has been made on amending the law relating to sexual violence.”
The Letter demands a transparent and thorough probe into the alleged role of the media in instigating the Guwahati attack and strongly urges the government to initiate “the process of dialogue with women’s rights groups, activists, lawyers and scholars on the Criminal law Amendment Bill, 2010, by organizing consultations.”