The problem with Section 375

This post started out as a comment by PT on IHM’s blog. However, as he only touched on the topic, I’ve decided to convert it into a full length post.

Right. So what is this Section 375 and what’s wrong with it?

In brief, Section 375 is the part of the Indian Penal Code which deals with the definition and classification of rape for legal purposes. The problem with it is that it’s an archaic piece of legislation which, in my opinion and that of many others, denies justice to a significant number of rape victims.  The full text of it is as follows:

Rape.– A man is said to commit” rape” who, except in the case hereinafter excepted, has sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances falling under any of the six following descriptions:- First.- Against her will. Secondly.- Without her consent. Thirdly.- With her consent, when her consent has been obtained by putting her or any person in whom she is interested in fear of death or of hurt. Fourthly.- With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband, and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married. Fifthly.- With her consent, when, at the time of giving such consent, by reason of unsoundness of mind or intoxication or the administration by him personally or through another of any stupefying or unwholesome substance, she is unable to understand the nature and consequences of that to which she gives consent. Sixthly.- With or without her consent, when she is under sixteen years of age. Explanation.- Penetration is sufficient to constitute the sexual intercourse necessary to the offence of rape. Exception.- Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.

If you didn’t quite get that, fear not. The Indian Penal Code is notorious for its complicated phrasing, which is awkward even by legal standards. Here’s what it means, in essence:

If a man has sexual intercourse with a woman either against her will, or without her consent, he is deemed to be a rapist. If either of these are proved, he goes straight to jail, no questions asked. Nothing else needs to be proven.

However, consent is not enough. If the guy used some kind of sneaky trick to gain that consent, he’ll still be in the dock. In particular, if the consent was gained by threatening hurt or death to someone the woman is interested in, or as a result of mental instability or some kind of intoxication which makes her unable to understand what’s going on, then the consent loses it’s meaning and the guy can’t use it as a valid defense anymore. Also, if the woman is under sixteen years of age, and the man is not, then having intercourse with the woman is rape regardless of whether or  not she agreed to it.

The law explains that penetration is the degree of sexual contact necessary to constitute rape.

Finally, it makes an exception in the case of marriage. According to the law, sexual intercourse by a man with his adult wife is not rape under any circumstances.

So what’s wrong with this? I have three major objections to it.

First, the law assumes that the perpetrator must be male, and the victim female.

A lot of people actually don’t see a problem here. I was surprised to see even a few feminist groups stating that rape laws should not be gender neutral.

Now, female-on-male rape may be much rarer than the other way round but it is neither impossible nor unheard of. Even if there is only one case in a million (which is, by the way, very far from the truth), the victims deserve every possible protection under law. Sexual assault of any kind is a traumatic, damaging event for a person and the psychological effect on male victims is no less than the effect on female victims. Moreover, discriminatory laws like these discourage people from reporting the crime and reduce awareness (and therefore, social sensitivity) towards it.

Second, the “exception” in the law  flies in the face of modern notions of morality and ethics.

It is monstrous to suggest that just because you are married to a woman, it’s alright to force her into intercourse. The concept smacks of Victorian-Era views of marriage and has no place in the modern world, where all woman, married and unmarried have full rights over their own bodies. Is sexual assault any less traumatic if the perpetrator is a husband? I sincerely doubt it!

Third, the law fails to recognize forms of rape other than penile/vaginal intercourse.

This is a glaring shortcoming, because the psychological trauma to the victim is NOT lesser if the intercourse is non-penile/vaginal. Then why the difference in punishment? There is no earthly reason for a law on rape to limit itself to a specific kind of assault.  

Happily, there is indeed quite a bit of hue and cry being made about it. The AIFWA has proposed these amendments to Section 375. The Law Commission has also laid down some excellent recommendations, although it still stops short of recognizing marital rape as rape.

Still, the process drags on.

I do hope, with all my heart that we soon get rid of archaic pieces of legislation like Section 375 and thereby move another step closer to a society where everyone is truly and equally protected under the law.

Someone Cares

October 2010

5 AM

I wake up with a snap, and my mind immediately starts churning with all the stuff to be done. Its searches yield two conclusions –

1. It’s going to be a horribly busy day at work.

2. It’s my birthday.

Typical.

Okay, first things first. My brain slips into gear and starts passing clear, specific instructions to my limbs. Their mission? Get me out of bed and get rid of that half-dead zombie feeling. I was in office till like 1:30 AM this morning, working on a contract so I feel a bit like a zombie. Bloody contracts.

My legs propel me towards the bathroom and then towards a sachet of instant coffee poking tantalizingly out of a drawer. 

For some reason I can’t seem to fathom, I feel like a sack of dirt. On paper, everything is fantastic. Life’s good.  

And surely, I’m not so immature that growing a year older would spoil my mood so bad? No it won’t, I say to myself. That’s not how I tick.

So what is it? I think I know, but it’s hard to be honest with myself. It’s…well…it’s just that…oh, Bugger it. I want my Birthday to be a bit special this year. And I know it won’t be. It’ll be filled with meetings and contracts and all kinds of drudgery.

People seem to think that being a lawyer is an über glamorous job. It’s not, especially if you don’t actually litigate. Mostly, you mope around, push paper, fill out forms, nitpick boring paperwork, go to meetings and go home, to be rewarded with doing the same thing the next day. And the one after that. And the one after that one too.

I’m exaggerating just a little here, but you get the idea. It’s not a great way to spend a birthday. And somewhere inside me, this child has awoken, which wants this birthday to be nice and magical and beautiful. Ergo, I feel like a sack of dirt. I sigh and put down my coffee mug. It was a gift from my dad, which he gave me for…no reason in particular. He’s like that, my father.

And then, I hear a cough and a shuffle behind me. It’s Prav.

“Morning, sweets”, he says, in an overly jovial, silly sort of way.

I roll my eyes.

“Good morn, my beloved”, I reply in a shrill, sugary sweet tone. I can play this game too.

He smiles. It’s a big, shit-eating grin. Killer stuff.

“Get dressed, we’re heading out”, he says in a matter-of-fact voice.

“What-“

“It’s Sunday. You don’t have to work on Sundays”

“But I do. There’s –“

“Your boss thinks you’ve got the flu. I, uh, sent him an email about it a few minutes ago”

“But Prav-“

“Oh come on, you’re an SVP, Natasha! Get used to it; you can take days off now. Besides, it’s your birthday”.

The same smile again. Now that I think of it, it’s an amazing smile.

“I…wow…you…”

“You’re welcome. Just get dressed for now and pack up.”

And then he puts two train tickets in my hand.

He actually planned this?! I’m speechless.

“Happy Birthday, Nat”

He holds me close. And suddenly, I realize that my sack-of-dirt feeling wasn’t about the birthday at all. All I wanted was to know that people cared. And now I know they do. He does. It’s not that I’m insecure, or that I want attention from people. It’s just that sometimes, you get so involved in the things in your life that you forget to be properly human. You forget to smell your coffee, forget to see how blue the sky really is. You forget to notice how warmth flows between people, how strong the mental bonds are, how a cosmic synergy makes even painful existence beautiful at times.

I hug him back and all is right with the world.

Engineering A Death Brew

A lot has been written about education in this country. Some positive, a lot negative. There are indeed plenty of valid criticisms – it promotes rote learning, prefers form over content in language, fails to deliver content in an engaging and effective manner, and so on.

This post is not about that. 

What I really want to highlight here is an attitude problem.

In an incident reminiscent of a scene from the hit movie Three Idiots, an IIT Madras student hung himself from a ceiling fan minutes after he was informed that he would not graduate that year.
This is nothing very new for the IITs or Indian colleges in general. Between November 2005 and 2010 for example, IIT Kanpur alone has recorded a whopping seven undergraduate suicides. With an undergraduate strength of 2,800 in any given year, this translates to more than 57 suicides per 100,000 every year; five and a half time the national average of 10.5.

Why is the situation so bad?

Academic stress is one reason. The IITs are prestigious, premier institutions. As a result of the ridiculously low acceptance rates, their students are the creme de la creme of the high school student crowd. Naturally then, the competition within the institutions is intense and is bound to result in some amount of stress. Failure is not considered an option in Indian society and the pressure to succeed no matter what can easily break even far more battle-hardened and experienced men and women.

But there’s a second reason too – one of attitude. The attitude of the faculty.

In July 2008, students from IIT Kanpur filed an application under the RTI Act to find out what the institute had determined as the cause for the alarming number of suicides. Their answer?

The IIT stated that modernization, social imbalance, irrational use of Internet and mobile phones are the chief reasons

IIT-Kanpur Dean Partha Chakraborty justified that cryptic response as follows

Parents can keep in touch with their sons and daughters on campus. Maybe there can be pressure from various parts of the society because you’re easily connected

But as the students pointed out, doesn’t that also mean that parents can provide much better moral and mental support? After all, communication is key to reducing suicides and mobile phones help immensely in that direction. With all due respect to the honorable Dean, is this not flawed reasoning?

I have long felt that we do not seem to value life here in India. That may or may not be a correct perception, but  this statement really took my breath away. When asked about what the Institute in general and Guidance and Counselling Unit (GCU) in particular was doing to address the situation and to improve the response against such incidents, IIT Madras dean of students Govardhan M said (emphasis mine),

Why are you always reporting negative news about IIT Madras? We also have the maximum number of patents but you didn’t report that. But you would want to report the death of 3 out of 5000 students which is statistically not important. Why don’t you go to other engineering institutes and find out how many died there. Why only IIT?

Er…what? “Statistically not important”? Since when are reporters only to report on statistically “important” events? Is it not shameful that entirely avoidable deaths of some of our best and brightest students are thought to be offset by the fact that the college has a high number of patents? Can patents be equated to human lives?

Parents aren’t entirely blameless either. Indian parents routinely push their kids too far, and too hard. Here in Delhi, I’ve seen kids from class VII already dreaming of getting into specific engineering colleges! Is a twelve year old kid really old enough to even decide what career s/he wants to pursue? It’s good to be driven and focused, but this is ridiculous! 

So what’s really killing our students?

In my view, it is a deadly combination of parental over-ambition, official insensitivity and immense academic stress that are working like a cancer in our society. These factors form a vicious circle that are wrecking the mental health of our future generations.

This must change, sooner rather than later.