We live in curious times indeed. For all those maddened with outrage at the remarks of Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary proclaiming that marital rape cannot be legally recognized in India, there seems to be solace in the morally upright Maharashtra Government’s pushing of the ban on beef. While the Indian woman continues to be stranded in a legal desert of options when it comes to marital rape, the Indian cow is bracing to be given its share of long-overdue honour—that is if you care to go by the recent spurt in Hinduvta ideology’s arm-twisting of everything and everyone non-Hindu.
The comments by Chaudhary came in the Rajya Sabha after DMK’s Kanimozhi questioned the Indian Government’s position on the removal of the exemption of the spouse from Indian Penal Code’s definition of rape. To strengthen her case she referred to the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’s recommendation to grant legal status to marital rape in India. To this, Chaudhary came up with the invincible India’s belief in “marriage as a sacrament” argument to stall any further constructive discussion on the matter. Befuddling his opponent he drew out a long list of social ‘factors’ like “level of education, illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs” to cement the impossibility of Kanimozhi’s demands.
The difficulty to introduce socially far-reaching legal acts in India’s diversified social landscape might be true but equally urgent is the social reality of marital rape in India. Recent statistics suggest that out of all the rapes that occur in India less only a miniscule 2.3% constitutes rapes outside the marital premise. Of those even a more infinitesimal figure of 0.6% signifies the cases of marital rape that are reported. Perhaps, Indian women, even the legally illiterate ones have intuited with the famed ‘sixth sense’ attributed to the fairer and weaker sex that reporting their suffering will only take them a small way.
In spite of exhortations by the Justice JS Verma committee—that was conceived to review India’s archaic anti-rape laws—that marital rape be included in the ambit of a punishable offence the Indian government had dithered from acting on the recommendations. The oft-repeated rhetoric being that criminalizing marital rape might overturn the fragile fabric of India’s celebrated family models. The case of Sakshi vs. Union of India in 2004 had shown that the Indian judiciary also leans towards the Centre’s stand on this issue. Specifying that the precedents of ‘foreign laws’ cannot be applicable in India’s socio-religious climate the Supreme Court had refused to revoke the established laws.
Increasing the strangeness of the matter laws like Section 9 of the Hindu Marriage Act pose further impediments whereby it speaks of the “restitution of conjugal rights”. Continuing in this strain of legal absurdity, Section 376 of the IPC accords a man the right to sexual relations with his wife if she is over 15 years of age when the permissible legal age for a girl to marry is marked at 18. Having stated that, the Hindu Marriage Act does let a 16 year old girl enter wedlock given that her father consents.
Leaving this legal quagmire, if we look at the choices a woman ultimately has if she gathers the patience to complain about marital rape, then we have Section 498A that punishes conjugal cruelty against by the husband against the wife or the controversial Section 377 of the IPC which punishes “unnatural sex”. It was under this law that a woman received justice last year in Delhi when her newly-wed husband sodomized her. However, this individual case opens up a different can of worms where the woman is forced to resort to another undemocratic legal recourse if she wishes to avoid the status of being her husband’s property without her necessary sexual rights. Eventually, it all boils down to the legal fact that an Indian woman’s social well-being hinges on the possibility of having a liberal father and or husband. If all else fails she might just have to decide to go solo.
In the meantime, making up for the lack of security in marriage for the female human in India is the sudden revival of interest in saving the female of the bovine species. Aligning itself with the noises and actions of outfits like Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s ‘Gau Mata Raksha Andolan’ (Protest To Save The Cow Mother) the Maharashtra Government effectively banned the slaughter of cows, bulls or bullocks in the state in March under the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act. The logic behind this move provided to the public was that Maharashtra being a largely agrarian state the move was going to be pro-farmers and devoid of any rumoured communal colour.
Within a week of the announcement right-wing bodies were busily getting butchers arrested because the government had added the very possession of beef into its list of prohibitions. Though in a recent hearing the Bombay High Court has put a stay on the Government’s Act to refrain from “coercive action” it has thrown up an interesting paradox. While the Indian Government keeps hawing and hemming about not wanting to indulge in “excessive interference” by breaking into the private contract of marriage and legalizing rape by the male spouse, it had no difficulty in entertaining the curbing of food choices of its citizen where Article 21 of our Constitution renders such a move unconstitutional. Pro-ban lawyers have mentioned the right of the State to regulate the consumption of the flesh of certain animals like the wild boar to validate the ban on beef, but their premise is limiting at best. The ban will anyway hit the poorest sections of our society irrespective of religion whose access to beef was one of their limited options to nutrient-rich diet. Additionally, farmers with dairy will also be affected when they lose their sole financially viable avenue of getting rid of their ageing, useless cattle. Thereafter, we can safely infer that if there is political will the government can take a firm legal stand on matters as private as an individual’s gastronomic options but without the same it will take a detour around issues like marital rape however, integral that might be to the preservation of the concept of a free country.
Be that as it may, but India’s first majoritarian government will have its way given its myopic understanding of India’s heterogeneous historical and social build. They will bring female voices from within their party like Sumitra Mahajan to counter the necessity of criminalizing marital rape or they will put forth specious reasoning to govern the dietary habits of the people. Instead of cribbing we better brace ourselves for the day they pass a law on our respiratory habits as well.