The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, that Parliament was hustled into passing has sparked disquiet. Caught looking inadequately empathetic when the rape of a young woman in Delhi sparked popular protests, the government tried to make amends by rushing through a hastily drafted ordinance to increase the penalty for offenders and to define and redefine certain offences against women. Weeks later, a bill, with some changes to the ordinance draft, was passed into law.
Ever since, there has been unease about the law as it now stands and the hope is that as the first cases are tried under it, it will be a work in progress so that gaps in the legislation are addressed responsibly by Parliament. It is expected, for instance, that there will be a relook at the death penalty for rape, and at provisions that could be misused as tools of harassment. It is part of a larger project of addressing the gross bias against women in the system and society at large in a progressive manner, by defining crime and punishment around the principle of equality, not notions of honour.
Mulayam Singh Yadav, patriarch of the Samajwadi Party that rules India’s largest state, has shown himself to be completely out of step with such an expectation. At a rally in Moradabad, he attacked the provision in the law for capital punishment for rape with the argument that boys will be boys. He kept to the familiar playbook used to belittle a woman who levels charges of rape, frivolously putting such allegations down to a romance gone bitter.
Yadav’s critique is a far cry from the humanist and pragmatic arguments against the death penalty. He is unconcerned about the nuances of the debate over state mandated death of a human being, the possibility that the death penalty, in fact, could lead to a lower conviction rate and that it could result in more rape victims being killed. Yadav is, instead, feeding — nurturing even — a patriarchal anxiety about the advancement of women as equal claimants to life opportunities and public spaces. It is of a piece with the shameful arguments he put forth against proposed measures to enable more women to enter legislatures.
It is also of a piece with earlier instances of Yadav’s demonstration of instinctively being on the wrong side of change. In 2009, his party manifesto railed against English-medium schooling and the use of computers, planks he later abandoned. Bias against women obviously runs deeper, and Yadav’s despicable statements — and his party colleague Abu Azmi’s yet more despicable echo — must be roundly condemned.