We had suggested that rape should be gender-neutral. That is the equal way of looking at things, but women’s groups did not want that,“ said the petite powerhouse, former high court Chief Justice Leila Seth, on Friday and added that there is “still a lot that needs to be done“ on laws against sexual violence in India.At 85, Justice Seth, who has the distinction of being the first woman to have become the chief justice of a state high court nearly a quarter century ago, continues to exude the sharpness and progressive thinking that marked her judgements and her legal and judicial career. She was the main panelist at the Times Litfest at Bandra on a session titled, `Rape–still more questions, still no answers’.The session, moderated by Srijana Mitra Das, also had as panelist Sonia Faleiro, author of `13 Men’, and Leslee Udwin of `India’s Daughter’ who joined in spiritedly via Skype on the rights of women and the un changed mindset of men.
Faleiro, who spoke about how women still do not open up in the presence of men in their family , about crimes that may have occurred, said: “There is no place for emotion in reportage“ of such cases.
Justice Seth was on the three-member expert panel headed by former and late Chief Justice J S Verma after the December 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape case appointed to recommend changes in law on sexual assault. “We had received 80,000 suggestions from people and in the 671-page report, had made many recommendations, some of which the state dropped,“ she said, before passing the new Criminal law (Amendment) Act of 2013, which essentially widened and redefined rape as an offence.
Justice Seth said women’s groups expressed concern that “police and law-enforcement agencies were still not ready for understanding this“. We had then said, “Only a man could be the perpetrator, but the victim could be a man or a woman“ bu his was rejected too. “We had also recommended that marital rape should be an offence. It is important to have it as law,“ she said, before laughing, “Mostly men make laws, and the men said it would spoil marriages…“
But, she said, “consent can’t be assumed as a right“ even though in law, as it stands, there is an exemption that essentially bars marital rape as an offence.“No woman usually wants to end a marriage. We said it would only enable a wife raped by a drunken husband to reach out to the police…There must be real consent, not imagined consent.“ Seth said she was glad that the government accepted their recommendation to make “stalking“ an offence, as it would “prevent many cases of acid attacks, found to be committed after a man stalks a woman“.
“Rape is often committed not only for lust, but also power, and high class men do it sometimes to show power,“ she said, pointing to how an old gangrape case of Bhavri Devi, which ended in acquittal, has still not got justice for her but did lead to the sexual harassment guidelines being laid down by the SC after an NGO, Vishaka, took it up.
“People are still not willing to talk about it when the rapist to talk about it when the rapist is a family member. Few parents do come out in support of a daughter now…“ But she said there has been a change with “stigma attached to gangrapes having dropped“.