July 19, 2018

Consent v Dominion: Sexual Offences in Indian Law

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a matter in which it is expected to determine the Constitutionality of Section 497 of the 1860 Indian Penal Code. This provision is popularly understood as one which criminalises adultery, and the IPC itself supports this understanding by calling the offence ‘adultery’. However, if the particulars of the offence it describes were considered, it would emerge that the provision is, more accurately, one which can criminalise a man who knowingly has sex not amounting to rape with a married woman without her husband's consent or connivance.

Making the provision as it now stands truly gender-neutral, as many demand, would not allow unfaithful wives to be jailed at their husbands’ behest. Instead, it would allow wives to have their unfaithful husbands’ women lovers jailed.

Although much public discourse treats IPC Section 497 as being discriminatory towards men since it cannot currently be used to jail women, it is quite firmly embedded in a worldview that treats women as the property of their husbands. These are husbands who would once, as the law earlier recognized, have had the liberty to decide when to have sex with their wives regardless of their wives’ feelings on the matter.

Current law has begun to acknowledge that this approach is problematic, and has begun to shed it. It now contains a mishmash of provisions some of which recognise women's rights and others which do not. Marital rape, for example, is recognised by the 2005 Domestic Violence Act but is still barely recognised by the 1860 Indian Penal Code despite its having been amended in 2013.

As far as IPC Section 497 which deals with adultery is concerned: if a man were to have sex with a married woman both with her consent and with her husband’s consent or connivance, her husband could potentially still be liable for having trafficked her. Although this is largely an academic possibility as it is difficult to envisage its realisation in real life, it remains a possibility because trafficking law does not require the person being trafficked to be transported anywhere for the offence to have been committed, and treats the consent of the trafficked person as being irrelevant.

Drawing on international law, the Indian Penal Code essentially defines trafficking to mean using unsavory means (such as threats, abduction, and deception) to recruit, transport, harbour, transfer, or receive one or more persons in order to exploit them. The exploitation could be physical or sexual, echo slavery, or involve forced organ donation. And the Code categorically states: “The consent of the victim is immaterial in determination of the offence of trafficking.”

This is not the formulation used in the ‘Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’ which, in its definition of trafficking, treats victim consent as being irrelevant only if any of the listed unsavoury means have been employed.

The IPC formulation diverges from that seen in international law and reflects the Indian social tendency to deny some people agency, particularly if they happen to be women. And, as an aside, the IPC also makes it difficult to contemplate the legitimacy of voluntary sex work not undertaken by an individual in isolation.

The failure to acknowledge a woman's consent to mitigate what would otherwise be a clearcut case of trafficking and, in other circumstances, the refusal to consistently recognise her withholding consent in what would otherwise be (marital) rape may seem unrelated. Nonetheless, they evidence a deep-seated confusion in the law about whether sexual interaction should be legitimised on the basis of ‘consent’ or ‘dominion’, in the sense that some conservative interpretations of scripture began to understand the latter term over a millennium ago.

Men, in that ancient Biblical telling, created in God's image, have God-given dominion over all the Earth's other living beings apparently including women. The understanding that men have primacy seeped into modern Indian law through statutory provisions introduced by the British to the country which, being patriarchal itself, was receptive to them. Even where we've tried to modernise the law to negate dominion, we haven't fully embraced consent as the IPC definition of trafficking shows.

The patriarchal structure of the law is finally being challenged now although it hasn't been entirely overthrown which is what has resulted in statutory confusion. In courts and beyond, we're questioning laws which criminalise homosexual acts and adultery, and which decriminalise marital rape. We're also engaging with the issue of why the crime of rape shouldn't be relationship- and gender-agnostic.  

Currently, we are at a crossroads. We can choose to cling to the laws and social norms which colonialism and conservatism have left us with, and leave women at the mercy of patriarchy along with men who do not conform to patriarchal expectations of them. Alternatively, we can choose to go down a different path in which each individual’s autonomy holds sway instead of the age-old notion that a patriarch, whether in the form of a living person or a state which exclusively upholds his desires, holds sway.

There is every indication that we will choose not to continue to discriminate against people depending on their sexual orientation and the allied choices they make. We may also see ‘adultery’ as contemplated by criminal law being decriminalised. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, that courtesy will be extended to every adult at least in relation to their private sexual lives with no-one being subject to another's dominion and each individual's choices in regard to their own life being respected.

July 12, 2018

[Link] IPC Section 377 Should be Read Down, Not Struck Off

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, infamous for criminalising homosexual acts, is the legal articulation of a traditional Judeo-Christian worldview (easily grafted onto conservative Indian thought) which has no place in the modern world. Even so, striking it down in its entirety would not be ideal, I argue over at Scroll.

Extracts

Section 377 of the 1860 Indian Penal Code is part of India’s colonial legacy. It criminalises homosexual acts using Victorian-era euphemism every bit as non-specific as the Biblical precepts it is supposedly in consonance with. [....]

Section 377 thus, in some circumstances, can accord relief to wives whose husbands rape them. Along with a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, which essentially held that sex with one’s wife is rape if she is less than 18 years old, this innovation forms the basis of judicial intervention which dilutes the marital rape exception enshrined in criminal law in India. [....]

That said, there are those who would suffer if Section 377 were completely struck down. It would therefore probably be prudent to read the provision down so that only those who voluntarily engage in “unnatural” acts without the consent of their partners can be targetted by it.

Having sexual offence law adequately recognise individual rights regardless of gender would require significant legal amendments, which are unlikely to see the light of day within the lifetime of most adults now alive. In the meantime, the least we should aim to do is ensure that tinkering with the law causes as little harm and as much good as is possible.

(Read the entire piece at Scroll: Rape laws: Why the Supreme Court must read down Section 377 – but not strike it down in its entirety )

July 11, 2018

The Assassination on Ganeshkhind Road

Pics found online : the stamp featuring Damodar Hari Chapekar,
an old Raphael Tuck pic of Ganeshkhind road, and Govt House
The Indian revolutionary Damodar Hari Chapekar, one of those responsible for shooting Rand, Pune's plague commissioner, & his military escort, has been honoured in a recently-issued postal stamp. The assassination took place in 1897 on Ganeshkhind road after Rand had outraged the local people with his methods.

Ganeshkhind road was once a tree-lined avenue, as it remained even 30 years ago. When Rand was killed, he was heading to the nearby Governor's house, which has become the main building in the university, for a celebration.

After Independence, there were plans to turn the Governor's summer residence into a deer park but a proposal to have it be a university ultimately prevailed. At some point, a large fountain with light turquoise tiles was constructed at the entrance to the university at one end of Ganeshkhind road. People would gather in the evenings: children playing in the pool and street vendors selling snacks nearby.

The fountain has now made way for a workaday flyover though, on the road where the assassination took place, there still stands a memorial to the Chapekar brothers who are respected to this day.