Maneka Gandhi’s Altered Stance on Marital Rape Angers Activists

Maneka Gandhi’s statement in parliament linking marital rape in India to poverty, illiteracy and the mindset of society has garnered strong opposition.

File photo of Maneka Gandhi. Credit: PTI

File photo of Maneka Gandhi. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The J.S. Verma committee set up in the aftermath of nationwide protests over the rape of Jyoti Singh in December 2013 recommended that marital rape be criminalised. “The law ought to specify that marital or other relationship between the perpetrator or victim is not a valid defence against the crimes of rape or sexual violation,” the committee said. Women’s groups have been fighting for this for years, arguing that “no means no” is true in every context. The UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women also recommended that the Indian government criminalise marital rape.

But more than two years since the Verma committee report, it appears the current government has no plans to make marital rape a criminal offence. Answering a question in Rajya Sabha on March 10, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said, “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament etc.” The same statement had been read out in Rajya Sabha in April 2015 by Minister of State for Home Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary.

Gandhi’s statement has not gone down well with feminists and gender rights activists.

Inconsistent remarks

Gandhi’s recent statement comes as a surprise to those who heard her previous outrage on marital rape. “My opinion is that violence against women shouldn’t be limited to violence by strangers. Very often a marital rape is not always about a man’s need for sex; it is only about his need for power and subjugation. In such cases, it should be treated with seriousness,” she had said.

Speaking to The Wire, Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, also pointed out the inconsistencies in the government’s arguments. “When they are asked tough question on marital rape, BJP leaders have often said that we can deal with it under 498a (dealing with marital rape as a form of domestic violence). So when they’re saying that, where is this logic of ‘poverty’, ‘social customs’ and ‘marriage as a sacrament’ coming in? Whether 498a is enough or whether marital rape should be brought under the rape law – that is a discussion I am willing to have, I am sure several women’s groups would be willing to discuss and debate that. But this other argument that keeps coming up, that there is some sort of cultural sanction on marital rape and that an Indian woman can’t say no to her husband – that is really regressive and completely unacceptable”.

“It’s atrocious and ridiculous, what she said. This whole thing of marriage being a religious sacrament – one may not have expected anything better from the BJP, but Maneka Gandhi has held a clear position on marital rape in the past,” said activist and researcher Kalyani Menon-Sen. “But now she’s completely changed her stance. It shows you that there’s been arm-twisting from the sanghis. She’s reading from a written statement that seems like a xerox of the statement earlier read by the minister of state for home. It’s a real shame,” Menon-Sen added.

Questioning the logic

“This is really the wrong way of approaching the question.  “What are you trying to say? That marital rape is part of Indian culture and therefore we can’t criminalise it?” Krishnan said.

“I can’t see how you claim ‘social customs’ when talking about marital rape,” said Kiran Moghe from the All India Democratic Women’s Association. “This is a serious issue for women all over the country across classes, it has nothing to do with poverty. It’s surprising that the minister for women and child development is making statements like this.”

Senior lawyer and former additional solicitor general of India Indira Jaising said Gandhi’s statement was “patronising”. “I think poverty, illiteracy and customary practices are the very reasons we need to criminalise marital rape. Incidentally, the law was changed in 2013 and rape of a separated married woman is now an offence. This happens often in India, a man will not let go of a woman as a sexual resource even if there is a separation. The domestic violence act also talks about sexual violence, and we have had this law for ten years now. So when are we going to be ready to criminalise sexual violence? It is long overdue,” Jaising added.

  • Dajjal

    When Indian law defines rape as “forced sex committed by one human on another” and not as “forced sex committed by a male on a female” and the stupid laws which won’t allow a mass murderer like Kasab to be convicted until he’s proven guilty beyon reasonable doubt but will promptly imprison men simply on the basis of a complaint by women (the only case of law based on ‘guilty until proven innocent’) are changed, then marital rape should be criminalised.

    • Jerry

      That is just ridiculously absurd statement to make. If you believe that MARITAL RAPE IS WRONG it should be criminalized without question. It need not be dependent on the fact that you want better laws or the execution of it other areas.

      I am fully supportive of gender neutral laws, because as you rightly said rape can be committed by men on women, men on men, women on men, women on women, women on children, men on children, men on transgenders and so on…. That is something we all need to fight for… but that is no excuse to grant victims of marital rape justice. Get your priorities checked.

      • Karthick

        The country has more than enough laws. Think the issue being pointed out is flawed implementation of the law. When there are rape laws already, why make a separate marital rape law?

  • Sri Rama Sarma Yadavally

    The issue has serious social ramifications. True, among poorer sections, mostly the man collects his daily wage and goes to drink and then goes home. If due to domestic needs the house wife asks for money money and his food demands are not met the verbal exchange breaks out and his quick comes down. Then male ego begins to unleash and what follows is violence. Woman forced into submission. Each case is different. But ultimate misery is the outcome. The women organisations should collectively focus on prohibition and gambling of poorer sections but not debate on Ms Gandhi’s reading out a statement and the reason therefor. It is irrelevant. It diverts the attention from commitment to bring the poor from the rut of poverty and violence.

  • S.Thiyagarajan

    I really donot understand the term “Marital Rape”. The solemnisation of marriage between a man and a woman means that they have the liberty to indulge in sexual activities without inviting any sanctions or penalties by law. There cannot be a situation in which a man can be charged with rape of his own wife. It is ridiculous. The so called “busy” activists want to take the govt. Police and the judiciary into the bedroom of each and every individual and analyse the pre-sex situation in the house hold. They want to sow discord in the family by charging the husband with rape and permanently thwart any possibility of patch-up in the family. When live-in-relationships are being given judicial nod, where is the place for marital rapes. The so called activists have got so many constructive things to do than poking their nose into the sexual life of others and peeping through the keyholes to see if MARITAL RAPE takes place. Instead they can advice the women about safe sex and family planning activities. They wont do it because those constructive activities will not attract the attention of the press and electronic media:

  • Jerry

    That is such a ridiculous statement to make. Are you stating that it is no ones business if there is domestic violence in home, that it is nobodies business if a child is being abused or molested?!

    We already have a law in place for domestic violence… and cases of domestic violence are not easy to prove, you need evidence for the same, the same goes for marital rape. There is a difference between consensual sex between man and wife and raping your partner… just because u happened to be married to a person does not give you a license to force someone into having sex with you.

    Seems like the only person who has a skewed idea or misplaced priority is you.

  • Jerry

    There are plenty laws that abused, where false cases are made etc… does that mean we get rid of all of our laws?! … There is no evidence to substantiate that womens rights laws are being abused far more than any other laws, the truth is that according the National Crime Records Bureau of India the conviction rates on sexual violence are very low. Hence, I fail to understand why ppl like yourself get so butthurt over women rights laws and not so much over the plenty other laws that are being abused at much larger scale.

    Yes rape can happen to a man as much as women, however it is quite rare, regardless, it is right for us to demand for gender neutral laws but to deny justice on the account of “if i dont get justice then no one else should” is just an absurd thing to profess.

    • Karthick

      No, doesn’t mean we drop all our laws. Why do you think in terms of all or nothing?

      Why are you so upset when someone wants to discuss the details. Why will the current laws not work?

  • Jerry

    Rightly said