NEW DELHI — The Indian Parliament’s lower house passed a landmark law Tuesday that sets tougher penalties for rapists and for police officers who refuse to file a woman’s complaint of rape, as well as criminalizing offenses such as stalking, voyeurism and acid attacks.
The amendments to existing law incorporate some of the sweeping changes that were demanded after the fatal gang rape of a young paramedical student in New Delhi in December, an incident that sparked a nationwide outcry against the lack of safety for women.
Despite the unprecedented protests that galvanized tens of thousands of Indians, the number of incidents of sexual assault has not diminished.
As lawmakers discussed the new law in Parliament on Tuesday, a British tourist fractured her leg when she jumped from the balcony of her hotel room in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, to escape being molested by the hotel owner, police said.
Last week, a Swiss tourist was gang-raped while on a bicycle tour of central India.
“I wish to state that we are enacting the strict law to act as a deterrent,” said Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde.
The new law, which the upper house is expected to pass in the current parliamentary session, sets a maximum penalty of death in cases in which a rape victim dies or is left in a “persistent vegetative state.” Those convicted in incidents of gang rape, the rape of a minor or rape by a police officer or public official will be sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison, up from seven to 10 years.
A provision requiring government approval for the trial of police officers, officials, politicians and judges on rape charges also has been lifted.
For the first time, the law criminalizes stalking and voyeurism, acts of sexual harassment that have long been grouped under the benign euphemism “love-teasing.” Hereafter, rapes that occur during religious and caste riots also will be treated as cases of aggravated sexual assault.
The law does not, however, address contentious issues such as marital rape or the legal impunity afforded to Indian military officers. Nor does it include a provision to prohibit politicians charged with rape from running for office.
“The new law is a major gain for us. There are many firsts in this,” said Kavita Krishnan, a women’s rights activist who led several anti-rape demonstrations in the capital. “It does not address 100 percent of all that we demanded, but we don’t want to delay or deny what we have got in order to wait for that perfect law.”
Some activists working to end the trafficking of minors said the law is a watered-down version of what was initially proposed.
“Under the new law, trafficking of a minor is a crime only if rape or sexual exploitation occurs,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, a children’s rights activist. “This law does not try to prevent the whole process of trafficking of minors, which often leads to sexual exploitation. The sexual assault cannot be seen in isolation but in the whole context of how trafficking takes place. A historic opportunity has been lost.”