Friday March 23 2007 09:10 IST
The recent judgment has yet again highlighted the need for a law on child sexual abuse, and a change in the definition of molestation and rape. Any non- penetrative sexual assault should constitute molestation under section 354 of IPC
The recent Supreme Court judgment in the Ramkripal case by Justices Ajit Pasayat and S H Kapadia has brought clarity to section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Section 354 deals with assault or criminal force to a woman with intent to outrage her modesty in circumstances in which the offender intends to so do or knows that it is likely that his actions will have the same result, but it does not define what constitutes a woman’s modesty.
Now Ramkripal has filled that void. The Supreme Court has said that “the essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex” and that “the act of pulling a woman, removing her saree, coupled with a request for sexual intercourse... would be an outrage of the modesty of the woman; and the knowledge that modesty is likely to be outraged, is sufficient to constitute the offence.”
But the problem is that the definition of molestation makes an assault on a woman culpable only if it is done with the intention of outraging her modesty. Redressal has been problematic in the absence of a liberal and expansive definition of ‘modesty’ and ‘intention of outraging’, courts have displayed a patriarchal mindset in dealing with the victim.
That brings us to the offence of rape defined in section 375, IPC. Rape is punishable by life imprisonment and a fine. The offence is constituted only when ‘penetration’ is present.
But how shall we to deal with cases that lie in the grey area between section 354 and section 375? What shall we do when a little girl or woman is subjected to something graver than molestation but not actually raped? The IPC provides us section 511 which deals with punishment for attempting to commit offences punishable with imprisonment for life or other imprisonment to deal with such cases. It provides that when an offence is attempted to be committed or for which no specific punishment has been provided for in the code, an offender will be punishable with half the longest term of punishment that is prescribed for committing the respective offence. In other words, a court can convict the accused for attempted rape. Yet courts have in general been reluctant to do so even when the accused has been caught while attempting to rape. They often rely upon technicality of the absence of penetration to rule out attempt and have invariably imposed on the accused the relatively minor punishment of imprisonment up to two years for molestation.
In this context, we must recall the 2006 Supreme Court judgment in the Tarakeshwar Sahu versus the State. A resident of Jharkhand, Sahu, had lured a 12-year-old girl into his hut, had disrobed himself and the girl and was attempting to rape the child when apprehended. Justices S.B. Sinha and Dalbir Bhandari, delivering the judgment, rejected the application of section 511 IPC on the ground that the section dealt only with attempts to commit such offence as are punishable with life imprisonment. They held that no person can be punished for attempt to rape under the IPC and convicted Sahu for molestation under section 354.
Similarly in Jai Chand versus the State, although the accused, a hospital orderly, had forcibly laid the complainant nurse on the bed, after breaking the strap of her trousers, the high court held that no attempt to rape had been proved, because the accused had not gone beyond the stage of preparation. Therefore, the court, overturning the conviction of attempt to rape pronounced by the trial court, reduced it to molestation under section 354. Courts have also relied on the 19th-century Empress versus Shankar decision. In that case, the court held that a person can be convicted of an attempt to commit rape only if his conduct indicates a determination to gratify his passions, despite all resistance by the woman. As such, even in cases where a woman cried out for help or hit the assailant who ran away, the courts have held that it cannot be said that the accused was determined to have sexual intercourse, directing conviction under section 354.
Thus, it is easy to recognise the lack of linkages to help deal with grey area situations. This is particularly evident in the context of the quantum of punishment prescribed for the two offences: (i) two years imprisonment for molestation under section 354; and (ii) life imprisonment or ten years and fine under section 375. However, amendments in section 354 brought in by some states are an effort to bridge that gap, enabling a higher punishment for cases that fall within the grey area. The 1991 Andhra amendment has made a section 354 offence punishable with both fine and imprisonment, of either description, for a term not less than five years but which could extend up to seven years. And the offence has been made non-bailable by the 1995 Orissa amendment. Finally, the recent judgment has yet again highlighted the need for a law on child sexual abuse, and a change in the definition of molestation and rape. It is urged that any non-penetrative sexual assault should constitute molestation under section 354 in the case of children and women and carry a higher punishment. It is urgent to recognise that because sexual abuse of a child is not only by touching, but also by penetration of fingers and other objects, the law must recognise such acts as rape. It is equally important to revisit the Juvenile Justice Act in the present context. The present situation must be rectified not just by the Supreme Court but also by Parliament through changes in substantive law.
The writer is member, Delhi Commission for Women
THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS