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.
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.