Pursuing Sex: should we scrap the Sharda Act?
by Sandhya Jain on 22 Feb 2009 7 Comments

Is it time to scrap the Sharda Act? Once hailed as one of modern India’s most progressive legislations, the Sharda Act and its associated objectives are being currently undermined by an insidious secular conspiracy that promotes free adolescent sex in the name of individual liberty. Modern India will have to take a call on the social and cultural implications of this sexual advocacy that undermines a civilisational ethic as well as a century of social reform.

Critical to this debate are the circumstances of Ashwini’s suicide on 11 February 2009. A 16-year-old schoolgirl in Class IX, Aikala High School, Kinnigoli, Mangalore, Karnataka, she committed suicide after being allegedly humiliated by suspected Bajrang Dal activists who grabbed her, her friend Mahadevi, boyfriend Salim and his friend Rafeeq, and handed them over to the Maroor police station on 10 February 2009.

The police called her parents and gave Ashwini into their custody. Whatever subsequently transpired between her and her family is unknown, but Ashwini committed suicide at her Mulki residence the next day. Her father Jaya Moolya gave an unequivocal statement that he did not hold the activists who took her to the police station responsible for her death; the Karnataka police arrested Salim on allegations of rape levelled by Ashwini’s family.

With a major news channel like NDTV playing up the communal angle which is only incidental to the tragedy, several questions arise that need clear articulation.

Given that Ashwini was a minor and that the Mangalore Police have slapped charges of rape against Salim on a complaint from Ashwini’s mother (Section 376 and 305, IPC, for luring and raping the girl), it may be safe to assume that Ashwini confessed to sexual relations with the accused before she committed suicide. Even assuming that the sex was consensual and that charges of sexual blackmail are exaggerated, the fact remains that under existing law, sex with a minor is STATUTORY RAPE.

NDTV, which highlighted the incident in virtually every prime-time bulletin for days, must answer the question – should Salim be allowed to get away from the charges of statutory rape and moral responsibility for Ashwini’s suicide ONLY because he is a Muslim?

The channel launched a veritable crusade to get the social activists who handed over the couple to the police arrested. Mangalore SP Sateesh Kumar’s warning that this could inflame communal passions only whetted the channel’s appetite for action in the matter. Writer Sara Aboobacker and women’s rights activist Flavia Agnes jumped into the fray to blame the BJP government for such incidents, which have allegedly made women feel unsafe.

It is disgraceful that women’s activists (incidentally both non-Hindu) see nothing abnormal or discordant in a 16-girl-old schoolgirl (regardless of community affiliations) going out of the way to meet a 28-year-old man, Salim (regardless of religious affinity).

What is at stake here is a deliberate de-sacralising of the Hindu marriage sacrament, coupled with a century of social reform, that linked the drive for education for the girl child with the attempt to defer the age of marriage for both boys and girls. It is pertinent that in the Hindu tradition, brahmacharya (celibacy) is enjoined upon the student (male or female) to keep the mind disciplined for the reception of knowledge; this stage culminates in the grihasta ashram (householder stage) when the citizen assumes his adult responsibilities towards family and society. The Vedic people were comfortable with relatively late marriage for girls (16 years of age), but disapproved strongly of pre-marital sex.

It is in this background that, under the leadership of enlightened Indians, the Widow Re-marriage Act was passed in 1856. In 1929 came the Child Marriage Restraint Act (Sharda Act), which fixed the minimum age of marriage for girls and boys at 14 and 18 respectively. The post-independence Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 went further and raised the marriage bar for girls to 15 (boys remained 18), made it mandatory that neither party had a living spouse at the time of marriage (thus making monogamy the law), and permitted divorce under certain conditions. (The minimum age of marriage is now 18 years for girls, and a debate is current on whether the legal age of 21 years for boys should be brought down to 18 years).

The Special Marriage Act of 1954 legalized unions between spouses of different religions, provided that the girl was 18 years of age and the boy 21.

Hindus did not take to the Sharda Act with alacrity, given profound historical causes for child marriage, which also came to be sanctified by tradition. Post-independence, a host of de-cultured activists who have become louder with each passing decade, have berated the Hindu community for practicing child marriage in rural areas, and gone so far as to demand the prosecution of the boy’s family for slavery (of the child bride, who is believed to be doubling up as free labour) and sexual abuse. Rajasthan is particularly vulnerable to “jholawallah” attention, and the annual festival of Akha Teej attracts activists like moths to a flame.

Undeniably, child marriage lacks informed consent because of the immature age of the partners, and early childbirth risks both foetal and maternal life and health. Indian law-makers disapproved of sexual activity at an impressionable age and listed it as child sexual abuse under Sections 377 and 376 of the Indian Penal Code.

As recently as May 2003, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Centre and 10 States on a Public Interest Litigation to prevent the widespread practice of child marriages which resulted in girl child servitude and child sexual abuse and rape by the boy’s household. A Bench comprising then Chief Justice V.N. Khare, Justice S.B. Sinha and Justice A.R. Lakshmanan sent notices to Chattisgarh; Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka

Even without the benefit of statistics, it is safe to assume that the ground reality in all these states is pretty much the same in February 2009 as it was when notices were issued.

What HAS changed is the ascent to power in New Delhi, in May 2004, of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition under the chairmanship of Ms. Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born Roman Catholic.

The advent of the UPA gave a thrust to anti-Hindu activism in the country, most notable in blatant cultural assaults upon the Hindu ethos through vulgar forms of sex education in schools, which saw teachers rise across the country and refuse to teach such suggestive lessons to young adolescents. There has been a visible curtailment of national holidays associated with traditional Hindu festivals, and an attempt to decimate the family by giving equal rights to live-in partners.

More pernicious is the attempt to enshrine St. Valentine’s Day – a Christian festival for married couples/sexual partners – among impressionable Indian (read Hindu) youth, with the Centre (vide Home Minister Chidambaram) literally snarling at States (read Karnataka) where social activists might try to oppose these vacuous celebrations.

Accompanying this vulgarity was Minister of State for Women and Child Development Renuka Choudhary’s disgraceful call for a “Pub Bharo Andolan” in support of young women drinking at all hours of the day in unlicensed bars! In a country where even at the time of writing, women in the villages of south Gujarat are storming and destroying country-liquor breweries after witnessing their alcoholic husbands die a painful death, the Minister for Women and Child Development peddles alcohol as a way of life for young women! She has got away with it only because of the Western Christian background of the Congress president

Apologists pretend that St. Valentine’s Day is being promoted by a secular (sic) Market, and is no longer a Christian festival (whatever that means). Why doesn’t the ubiquitous Market organise a Market Badhao Andolan to promote its legitimate activity – to make money? And why, in recognition of the rising social backlash, did the Congress party field Mr. Rahul Gandhi, Amethi MP and son of Ms. Sonia Gandhi, to say that he did not think much of Valentine’s Day personally, but those who did should be allowed to observe it in peace? Naturally the supine media did not ask any Valentine Day couple if they even knew the first thing about St. Valentine – so alien is the man and the festival from Indian tradition.

Sixty years of State-sponsored secularism have brought us to this pass – parents have lost the ability to transmit cultural, religious, and even common social and civil virtues to the youth, because the atmosphere is so loaded against this. The arid secularism of school, college, and public sphere have connived to create a barrenness in the souls of Hindu youth (Muslims are protected by their policy of socio-cultural apartheid), and missionaries aided by the State have moved in gleefully to promote St. Valentine’s – best exemplified by the undignified Pink Chaddis beamed into every home by an obliging television – in the name of individual freedom.

We are sought to be silenced with the admonition that Valentine’s is NOW only Commerce and not Christianity. Well, Christianity is so closely linked with Commerce (not to mention Sex, if one goes by the sheer number of sexual abuse cases against the clergy in Western countries), that it is difficult to separate the two. Commerce, like Secularism, is only a mask of the Christian god, a truth Islam has been quite savvy about; Hindus would do well to wake up to the cancerous threat to India’s civilisational ethos.

A pointer to the dangerous direction in which we may be heading comes from the current sensational story of 13-year-old Alfie Patten, who hit the front-page of London tabloids because his baby girl from 15-year-old girlfriend Chantelle Steadman, is being claimed by two other adolescents as their own! Alfie’s baby face, with not a trace of adolescent facial hair, has shocked even his over-sexed nation to introspect whether “more sexual education” is really the answer to juvenile sexual activity.

Were a Rajasthani patriarch to suggest that in cases like Ashwini’s, where the girl child is patently disinterested in studies, she may be married off and allowed to indulge her desires in a socially sanctified and dignified manner, there would be an uproar about the sexual abuse of minors, free domestic labour, female backwardness because of lack of education….

But you cannot have it both ways – girls and boys wishing to pursue their studies must function with restraint, respecting the norms of the society in which they live. Sex is as much an emotional as a physical activity; bad sexual experiences can have a ravaging impact on the psyche. Contraception, if used, protects only against conception, and does not touch the soul.

If sex was only about individual choice, young Ashwini would not have committed suicide. She did so out of a residual sense of shame and a belated recognition that in Hindu tradition, the family and not the individual is the smallest social unit. The atomization of the family, achieved by the Christian tradition, brought her to a dead-end.

The author is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com

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