Harassment must move beyond 'modesty': ABVP leader's statement reflects the law

A lot of things have changed in India since 1860.

For the most part, the Indian Penal Code is not one of them. The recent remarks of an ABVP leader at the Jadavpur University in Kolkata show exactly why this could be a problem.

Reacting to allegations of sexual harassment during the ongoing political face-off, the leader, Suman Dutta was quoted as saying, "Someone should tell them that only girls who have shame can be molested... These girls kiss men openly. This is what they do all day."

Ridiculous as the statement sounds, it might well be taking inspiration from the law of the land. After all, according to the Indian Penal Code, there is no such thing as molestation. The code only mentions "assault or criminal force" or "word, gesture or act" which are aimed "to insult the modesty of a woman."

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

This has clear implications — it means either that only certain kinds of women can be sexually harassed, or that sexually harassing certain kinds of women is not a crime.

So, while we outrage over the student leader's statement, this could be good time to drive home the point that the legal terminology relating to sexual harassment is not just a problem of semantics. It is the perfect example of how the language of the law is not just affected by public attitudes, but also shapes attitudes in turn.

This is the same reason why Section 377, which effectively criminalises homosexuality, is a problem, despite the Supreme Court's observation in December 2013 that there is no evidence that there is discrimination against homosexuals. The term "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" lends credence to the idea that certain sexual orientations are unnatural, and therefore undesirable.

The point about the problematic nature of the term was raised earlier in the JS Verma committee report, which had come amid a widespread debate about gender equality. While the panel did not deal with the term in detail, it did refer to the use of the words 'outraging the modesty' as inappropriate.

Unfortunately, considering widely prevalent attitudes towards sexual harassment in India, this change may not happen anytime soon. Suman Dutta is hardly alone in believing that only women who conform to his ideas of 'morality' can be the target of sexual crimes. This is an extension of the rationale of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who reportedly said that rapes happen only in India and not in 'Bharat'. The claim, therefore, is that rapes are an outcome of the "immoral culture" of cities and do not place in villages that are presumably temples of good ol' fashioned and traditional values and morals.

For an example of better terminology, we don't have to look far.

The Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act at Workplace of 2013 defines sexual harassment in terms of unwelcome physical contact or advances, a demand for sexual favours, and making sexually coloured remarks, among other things. The move away from references to 'modesty' is certainly welcome, but this is only restricted to women at the workplace. This needs to extend to women in general.

The remarks of Suman Dutta, stating that women 'who have no shame cannot be molested' are highly problematic, but hardly surprising — considering that the law in force effectively makes the same assumption.

For once, the law needs to take the lead and move from the 19th to the 21st Century.

Updated Date: May 11, 2016 14:51 PM

Also See