By Swapna Majumdar
Thursday, February 21, 2013
PJ Kurien, deputy chairman of the Upper House of Parliament, faces rape charges in the reopening of a 17-year-old case. He is among the lawmakers who resume session today under the new scrutiny of women's safety watchdogs.
Credit: Swapna Majumdar
NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)--Parliament resumes Feb. 21 with a new watchdog group focused on the legal aftermath of a notorious gang rape in December that left a 23-year-old student dead in the capital city.
"We want to tell the government and Parliament that we are watching you," said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women's Association, a group affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.
PJ Kurien, deputy chairman of the Upper House of Parliament, is expected to come under particularly heavy scrutiny since he faces rape allegations in a case from 1996 that includes charges of abduction and multiple rapes of a female teen.
His case reopened on Jan. 31, a week after the Jan. 23 publication of a set of far-reaching reform proposals for the legal treatment of sexual violence.
The proposals were offered by a three-member committee of jurists headed by J.S. Verma, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Among other things, the Verma committee recommends that politicians who face charges of sexual violence be barred from contesting elections.
In line with that, women's groups and some political parties, including the left, are demanding that Kurien step down because of the re-opened rape charges that the victim recently reiterated against him. Even the victim's mother has sought the removal of Kurien in a letter written to Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Kurien, a former union minister, belongs to the Congress Party.
Members of Parliament of the Communist Party of India, Marxist, especially its female members from the southern state of Kerala, have threatened to boycott the parliamentary session if action against Kurien is not taken. They have said it wouldn't be proper for Kurien to continue in his post due to the changed circumstances and that he should resign. If not, he should be removed from the post.
These members have also accused the Kerala government of having double standards by not ordering a reinvestigation into the case against Kurien.
In January 1996, the victim--then a teen from Suryanelli, in Kerala--was abducted and allegedly raped by 42 men over 40 days. She was taken from place to place in the state and eventually abandoned across the border in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. Kurien had been accused as one of her tormentors.
In 2005 the Kerala High Court acquitted 34 of 35 men accused of rape. Kurien was cleared by the Kerala High Court on April 4, 2007 due to lack of evidence.
On Jan. 31, however--amid widespread public scrutiny of the country's lax legal response to rape charges--the Supreme Court set aside the 2005 Kerala High Court verdict saying it had relied on some inadmissible evidence while acquitting the 34 men accused of raping the teen. The Supreme Court has directed the High Court to reexamine the matter in light of established legal principles and to provide a verdict within six months.
Watchdogs will also target a Feb. 3 anti-rape presidential ordinance for undermining and potentially upstaging the attention that lawmakers give to the Verma report.
"We demand a law based on the Justice Verma recommendations, not the eyewash of the ordinance," said Krishnan, from the All India Progressive Women's Association.
The watchdog group says the ordinance punishes women rather than perpetrators of sexual violence.
Any sexual contact, including touching, between young people ages 16-18 will automatically be termed "sexual assault" under the ordinance, even if it is by mutual consent among friends. Women's organizations say the clause will encourage moral police brigades that terrorize young women.
Sucheta De, of the All India Progressive Women's Association, contends the ordinance also justifies and legalizes marital rape. De said that under the ordinance wives cannot accuse husbands of sexual assault, but husbands can file cases of sexual assault against their wives. This can theoretically mean life-sentences for wives.
By contrast, a husband who rapes a woman from whom he is legally separated would only get two years of imprisonment as punishment if he rapes her, she said.
De is also associated with the Freedom from Fear campaign, which was launched soon after the Dec. 16 gang rape incident by a cross section of activist groups to focus attention on violence against women and to demand the safety of women. She said the campaign will highlight other anti-woman clauses of the ordinance to ensure the government is forced to listen to their voices.
The Freedom from Fear campaign includes representatives of All India Progressive Women's Association, All India Student Association and the women's units of political parties such as All India Democratic Women's Alliance.
Swapna Majumdar is based in New Delhi and writes on gender, development and politics.
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