Reacting to the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi on Friday said that her ministry will amend laws to bring in death penalty for those found guilty of raping children aged 12 years or below. The minister, one of the few from the Narendra Modi government to break their silence on the issue, said that she would move a Cabinet note to amend the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012.
“I have been deeply deeply disturbed by the rape case in Kathua, and all the recent rape cases that have happened on children. I and the (WCD) ministry intend to bring an amendment to the POCSO Act asking for death penalty for rape on children below 12 years,” Maneka said in a YouTube video posted by her ministry on Friday morning. The stringent POCSCO laws are meant to protect children below the age of 18 from sexual assault. However, capital punishment for rape will be made applicable only in case of assault on children and pre-adolescents of 12 years or under, WCD Secretary Rakesh Srivastava said. “We are concentrating only on children — those up to 12 years old. We will send the proposal to Law Ministry and then go for preparing the Cabinet note,” Srivastava said.
According to sources in WCD Ministry, Sections 4 and 6 of POCSO Act would be amended to make provision for death penalty for those convicted of raping children. Section 4 of the law deals with “penetrative sexual assault” and is currently punishable by imprisonment of between seven years and life term. Section 6 deals with “aggravated penetrative sexual assault”, for which the maximum penalty is imprisonment from 10 years to life term. Both will be amended to make a provision for capital punishment.
Stuti Kacker, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, said that the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, added a new section to POCSO Act, which already provides for death penalty in certain cases where the offence is read with IPC, including cases where rape causes the victim’s death. “Section 42 of POCSO Act, dealing with ‘Alternate Punishment’, was amended following the Justice Verma Committee report. It said that if the offence falls under POCSO, as also specific IPC sections, then the offender can be punished under whichever of the two has a punishment of a greater degree,” she said.
Two such IPC Sections cited in the amended Section 42 is 376A (where in the course of such commission of rape, the offender inflicts an injury which causes the death of the woman or reduces her to a persistent vegetative state) and 376E (repeat offender) — the maximum punishment for these is death penalty. The WCD Ministry’s proposal, if approved, would amend the Act further so as to award capital punishment in all cases of rape of children under 12 years.
Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover, who closely works with victims of sexual violence, called the move an “attempt to shift the goalpost”. She said that Maneka should instead work to ensure that women across all segments get access to justice, especially in cases where men who commit the crime are socially and politically powerful. “In any other country this would have been treated as a national emergency but here all the government has to offer is populism,” Grover said. “The issue is that girls are unable to have access to justice, fair investigation, and effective prosecution because the police or courts are not responding. How dare they talk about sentencing when they are not even able to give access to justice and get conviction…”