NEW DELHI: The centre signed off on an ordinance, or emergency executive order, to introduce capital punishment for child rapists on Saturday, a move that is seen as an effort to signal the government's commitment to fight sexual crimes against young girls. The changes were cleared at a meeting of the Union Cabinet convened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi within hours of his return from a five-day foreign tour.
The Cabinet also decided to raise the minimum jail term for rapists to 10 years if the victims are over 16 years old. People convicted of rape of a girl below 16 years will be sentenced for a minimum of 20 years. Also, the centre says rape probes and trials cannot take more than two months each.
The government also cleared a second ordinance that will let the government confiscate property of economic offenders who flee the country.
Maneka Gandhi, union minister for women and child development, had floated the idea of changing the law to introduce death penalty last week amid national grief and anger over the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Jammu and Kashmir's Kathua. At Saturday's meeting, the proposal was formally moved by the Home Ministry.
This wasn't the first time that such a recommendation had been made. It had been shot down every time in the past.
When experts tasked to overhaul rape laws had looked into this demand following the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in the national capital, they had noted that capital punishment for rape "may not have a deterrent effect".
PM Modi's government was the last one to spike the suggestion in January. "The death penalty is not the answer to everything," the centre's law officer told the Supreme Court this January.
The public outrage after the horrific rapes in Kathua and Uttar Pradesh's Unnao, much of it initially directed at leaders of the ruling BJP seen to be protecting the rapists in both cases.
Even after the BJP acted against these leaders, the anger over the continuing crimes did not subside with people demanding that the government do more to protect children. There were also calls from abroad too to nudge the government and PM Modi to pay more attention to the condition of women.
Maneka Gandhi has told states to improve the response of the police to sexual offence by setting up special teams, sensitise officers and punish those found to be obstructing the probe.
Existing provisions stipulate a minimum jail term of seven years for a minor's rape. The maximum punishment is a jail term for the remainder of the convict's life.
It is not clear how a harsher punishment would be deterrent when only 3 out of 10 men charged with raping minors are convicted. The remaining 70 per cent people walk free. This meant that 5,700 people accused of raping minors were acquitted while only 2,241 were convicted in 2015.