By Garga Chatterjee
My maternal grandmother, who I used to call Dida, and by whose side I was during her death more than a decade ago while I was still a medical student, left me with a lot of memories. The most salient among them was to kiss me in the forehead when I would sometimes hug her. She had been through the second partition of Bengal, brought up 3 children of her own and 3 children of the extended family and was generally considered a jewel of a person with a golden heart. Today I am to understand that my government wants to brand her a criminal.
She probably started having sex with my maternal grandfather from the age of 17 or slightly less. On April 27th, a bunch of mostly old people, most of them old men, have decided that in doing so, my grandmother had been acting criminally. That bunch which goes under the name Cabinet of the Union of India approved a draft of the proposed Protection of Children from Sexual Offences bill that criminalizes consensual sexual activity by people between the age of 16 and 18. Now, if two 17 year olds indulge in any sexual activity, it will be a statutory crime, punishable by imprisonment. My dida must have been a criminal many times over. Thank the goddess that she was not 17 in these times.
Proposed laws such as those legislating consensual sexual activity are in part what important sectors of society want to appear to be espousing, irrespective of social realities or even the private practice even in these sectors. For example, it is inconceivable that there has never been a member of parliament since 1952 who did not have homosexual preferences. However, it is also true that not a single member of parliament has publicly raised the issue of crimes against homosexuals. When pretension of this sorry grade makes its way into Union cabinet deliberations, the resultant law is sociopathic. This is true for any gap between legislative posturing and lived reality. However, such posturing eminently fulfills the purpose of patting our make-believe sensibilities, that continues to seek solace in the long shadow of Victorian morality. Like the idea of justice under the Empress, the righteousness of our posturing is only matched by its sheer hypocrisy. Largely being a tropical people, at least we should seek strength in the light that is all around us.
What does the light of evidence tells us? To do that, we have to clean our minds from old adages like Indians are a conservative people – though this one is not as old as one may think. Such pious banalities are supposed to make us believe that we have been a ‘traditional’ society, which, by parental and societal guidance, has avoided like plague since time immemorial, the immoral and about-to-be criminal act of sex before age 18. On closer scrutiny and slight refreshing of memory, this so-called unbroken tradition in repression seems hooey. In the decades 1941-51 and 1951-61, the average age of a woman at marriage was 15.4 years and 16.3 years respectively (Kumudini Dandekar, 1974). If one assumes that this has a normal distribution and also admits the obvious that there was also some premarital sex, we will see that a stupendous majority of women in India were sexually active by age 18, even in 1961. Whatever else the Union cabinet’s and my ancestors were doing, they were having a lot of sex, at just about the age it is just about going to be a crime.
Quite contrary to the belief that some kind of a ‘modern’ sexual revolution is raging in India, starting in cities, infecting small-towns, pushing ‘children’ into sex, the evidence-based reality is that Indians, in general, are having sex later than ever before. Hence, in ‘modern’ times, the proliferation of gender segregated hostels for 21 year olds shows how much the paranoid, sexually repressed urban middle classes have come to dominate and direct the public culture of intimacy in this land where they constitute a minority. In their portrayal of gullible, ‘immature’ women and predatory men, they validate the same patriarchal ethos that denies the woman’s rights over her body and pleasure. By dint of its grip on policy, it simultaneously criminalizes an increasingly large section of the population, given the amount of unprotected sex that goes on without governmental consent.
The present draft bill ostensibly aims to protect children against sexual crimes. All conceivable sexual crimes including rape, molestation, coercive prostitution, trafficking are punishable under present laws. These crimes are crimes – irrespective of whether the victim is 17 or 71. To limit sexual crimes, what is needed is enforcement of present laws and prosecution of the guilty. Law-makers, rather than criminalizing teenage sex, would do well to concentrate its energies on the law-enforcers. In a country where the Border Security Force personnel are involved in trafficking and molesting on a regular basis, where policemen rank high among those folks who take money after raping sex workers, where Manipuri mothers have to shed their clothes in public to implore the Indian Army to not rape their daughters, the less power, protection and immunity that is granted to such institutions, the better. Isn’t it strange that when these agents of the state rape poor women, the otherwise vocal middle-class becomes eerily silent. (IPA Service)