Proposed Amendments to the Indecent Representation of Women’s Act

Few weeks ago media reports emerged that the union cabinet had approved amendments to the Indecent Representation of Women’s Act, 1986 (IRWA). The IRWA was enacted with a view to penalize indecent portrayal of women in the mass communication and accordingly prescribes penalties (in terms of fines and imprisonment) for derogatory and indecent representation of women.

The amendment seeks primarily to introduce three key changes: first, widen the scope of the act to cover electronic communication and/or publication. Second, to increase the penalties by increasing the fine to between Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 1,00,000 for first time offenders and Rs. 1,00,000 to Rs. 5,00,000 for repeat offender. Those found guilty under the IRWA could also face a maximum jail term of three years and jail terms for repeat offenders could range from two to seven years. Third, police officers above a certain grade would have the power to carry out search and seizure in relation to any offending material, in addition to the power of state/central government officers.

Although the text of the actual amendment is not publicly available, certain preliminary issues deserve to be highlighted. First, it is interesting to note that there seems to be a discrepancy between the recommendations of the National Commission of Women (NCW) and the final proposal. The NCW suggested a much lighter penalty both in terms of a fine and jail term, in comparison to the final proposal. For instance, the NCW suggested a fine of Rs. 10,000 (for first time offenders) and Rs. 50,000 – 5,00,000 (for repeat offenders). Notably, imprisonment is excluded from first time offenders and a jail term ranging between six months and five years is suggested for repeat offenders.

Second, many representatives from the advertising industry have been critical of the amendment, stating that it might lead to over-censorship, since the focus of the regulatory intervention is based on loosely defined concepts such as “indecent”. These criticisms have also drawn attention to the redundancy of the amendment, as the objectives sought to be achieved could have been addressed under the existing Information Technology Act, 2000.

Third, the official government press release reveals certain interesting motivations behind the amendment. It draws specific attention to the need for greater regulation over virtual communication, as existing laws fail to adequately address emerging challenges in online activity. I think this is a worrisome situation, as state officials seem to think that regulation of new communication can be achieved by merely amending old laws. Not only is this ineffective from a regulatory perspective, but also problematic as it may lead to stifling of legitimate speech.

Given the slow pace of our parliamentary process, I think that the proposed amendments are worth tracking, specifically paying attention to what the end product might be.

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