Tuesday, July 19, 2016

'Crimes Against Women' in India

The National Criminal Records Bureau in India maintains a separate chapter on 'Crime against Women' in its annual report, publishing statistics for crimes that are "specifically against women". It shows us that not only does the Indian Penal Code contain various female-specific crimes, but that it is supplemented by various other statutes creating offences with only female victims. These are only union laws, mind. 'Crime against Women' today has become a sad caricature unfortunately. Various outfits represent most of these laws as nothing but mechanisms at the hands of scheming wives to oppress a husband and his family members. I do not wish to enter that debate here, but would only say that such a view ignores the obviously empowering ends achieved by such legislation in a country with largely paternalistic social mores [See this recent piece by Flavia Agnes on the debate]. I am concerned with a different problem: legislative excess. I argue that there are significant overlaps between the many offences created under the variety of statutes at the federal level. This is undesirable, for it effectively criminalises the same acts with different labels and ultimately clogs the courts with different cases seeking similar reliefs. A more efficient setup is attainable and could go a long way in resolving what have become systemic problems in this area of law.

498A IPC vs. Domestic Violence Act vs. Dowry Prohibition Act
Historically, we had the Dowry Prohibition Act come in force in 1961, followed by the insertion of Section 498-A in the IPC in 1983, and lastly the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act [DV Act] came in 2005. The statutes/amendments were passed in differing legislative climates; the latter two being passed in an India of post-Congress domination. What all these laws ended up doing is treading over the same ground with different ploughs. The 1961 Act criminalised giving and/or demanding dowry. This was subsumed within the definition of 'cruelty' afforded by Section 498-A ("harassment of the woman where such harassment is with a view to coercing her or any person related to her to meet any unlawful demand for any property or valuable security ..."). All of this was then subsumed under the wide umbrella of the DV Act in 2005. This took in dowry demands as well as all forms of 'cruelty' under Section 498-A as forming grounds of either physical or economic violence. The DV Act does not simply label the violence as an 'offence' but uses it to confer rights on the aggrieved woman who may then seek physical and/or economic protection. The DV Act mechanism has been lauded for providing quick reliefs. But, nonetheless, it propels litigation between the same parties under both the traditional criminal justice system for prosecuting Dowry and IPC offences, as well as under the DV Act for seeking immediate economic reliefs. The tendency of courts to hear matters together also dents the initial momentum gathered in the DV Act case.

Before moving on, a short comment is warranted on Section 498-A IPC. The provision is unhappily worded and literally invites abuse. By defining 'cruelty' as any wilful conduct which is of such a nature as is likely to drive the woman to commit suicide or to cause grave injury (whether mental or physical), the legislature imported traditionally civil grounds for damages into a criminal provision. The text itself seems to suggest that causation is not an element of consideration - X caused Y is not an inquiry, but X did Y which caused Z to feel A might be.  This, together with the largely subjective understanding of the actus reus requirements gravely diminishes the certainty with which courts might apply the provision. All in all, this furthers its potential use as a tool of oppression and, in a way, justifies the bad publicity it garners.

IPC Trafficking vs. Immoral Trafficking 
The issues here are less straightforward as compared to the matrimonial offences. Reading provisions on 'Trafficking' in the IPC - Sections 370-373 - together with the provisions of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act 1956 [ITP Act] throws up similar troubles. The latter statute is completely unique insofar as it criminalises living off the earnings of prostitution and running of brothels. But the parts on trafficking in the ITP Act curiously fail to reference the IPC provisions that were existing from the start. The ITP Act ignores how the IPC defines 'trafficking' in Section 370. The IPC offences of selling and buying minors for prostitution are not referred to, but the statute creates new offences on substantially similar grounds. None of the provisions refer to Section 366 IPC, the offence of kidnapping a woman to inter alia seduce her to illicit intercourse. This is curious since seducing persons to illicit intercourse is perhaps the crux of the ITP Act.

Obscenity vs. Indecent Representation of Women
The offence under Section 292 IPC criminalising publication of obscene material has been there from the start. In 1951 it was supplemented by the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act. The legislation defines 'indecent representation' of women in broad strokes [Gautam Bhatia in his recent book offers a scathing criticism of this] to mean the "depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman, her form or body or any part thereof in such a way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to, or denigrating, women, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals." 

It is safe to say that the first part of the definition is akin to the saying that beauty (read indecency, derogatory and denigrating) lies in the eyes of the beholder. Logically, it also subsumes all women to be one class and imagines a set of possible acts that offend them collectively. The second part pushes this idea further on a more general level. It incorporates elements from Section 292 IPC - the requirements of depraving and corrupting influences - and adds these elements with the notoriously problematic idea of 'public morality or morals'. As Bhatia argues at one place, restraining free speech on the ground of public morality does not have the sanction of Article 19(2), rendering this provision without any constitutional protection. Speaking from the perspective of criminal theory, it is quite inexplicable to blatantly impose the public morality upon autonomous individuals through the tool of the criminal law. The offence can be criticised in any number of ways - constitutionally unsound, no foundation in criminal theory, supporting gender stereotypes - but here I'll refocus the lens to the context of this post. The offence could easily be reduced to a sub-clause in Section 292 and save persons from having to fear additional prosecution. This is important, as the Indecent Representation of Women Act allows for employees of publishing houses to be held vicariously liable (without them having the mens rea to commit an offence). This stretches the potential net of liability much wider than the IPC, which does not have a vicarious liability provision.

The various special laws designed to address 'Crime Against Women' seem to be uniformly afflicted by problems of bad drafting and a lack of clear purpose. In attempting to differentiate the special law from the general IPC offences, the legislature creates new terms without defining them appropriately. This promotes vexatious litigation, or litigation that would otherwise not have been attempted but for the vagaries in the law. The overly moralistic tenor of the statutes seeking to safeguard the interests of women render their application more difficult from the criminal trial perspective and increases the possibility of bad decisions at any stage of the proceedings. This promotes the perversity with which the regime is then viewed in the public [where the possible offenders (men) significantly outnumber the victims (women)]. Moreover, in the case of matrimonial offences the overlaps bring about multiple litigation between the same parties and increases administrative costs for the system. All of this clogs the docket and reduces the judicial time possibly allocated to deciding each dispute.

There are easy answers to this problem. A relook of the statutes would prompt amendments and a narrowing down of their obtusely wide scopes. The area of physical and economic violence against women could be consolidated into a general code and taken out of the IPC altogether. The emphasis on immediate reliefs (akin to the DV Act) should be at the heart of that imagine code. A similar point can be made about the trafficking offences. A more drastic solution is required for the last of my categories: there is no place for the Indecent Representation of Women Act and it must be repealed. The legislature must reconsider its overall approach to addressing crimes against women. Inflating the statute book with new offences only makes it unwieldy and difficult to implement. A leaner code would be more helpful to all stakeholders in the system.

[Special thanks to Mansi Binjrajka for her valuable feedback on an initial draft of this post]

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points, particularly the suggestion about a separate code from the IPC for each of these classes of offences.