Amid differences of opinion in the cabinet over the proposed anti-rape law, the government Tuesday referred the legislation to a Group of Ministers (GoM) and also called an an all-party meeting on March 18 to discuss the bill.
Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde expressed confidence that that differences would be resolved and the government will be able to secure parliamentary approval for the legislation by March 22.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath has already spoken to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party leaders on the legislation, said informed sources.
There is a sense of urgency in passing the law by March 22 as the bill will replace an ordinance promulgated by President Pranab Mukherjee Feb 3 and it has to be passed within six weeks from that date.
The first half of the budget session ends March 22 and the house will reconvene April 22.
The issue has been in sharp focus after the brutal assault and gang-rape of a woman in Delhi Dec 16, last year. She succumbed to her injuries Dec 29 in a Singapore hospital, where she was airlifted for specialised treatment.
Shinde told reporters that the GoM meeting on the bill would be held soon. "We are confident that the issue will be resolved by Thursday. We will pass the bill by March 22," he said.
According to the sources, the points of disagreement over the bill relate to provisions making it gender neutral, lowering the age of juvenile criminals from 18 to 16 besides provisions prescribing punishment for stalking and voyeurism.
While Finance Minister P. Chidambaram wants the bill to be gender neutral by replacing the word "rape" with "sexual assault", women activists have impressed upon the government to retain the word "rape" so that law is seen as specifically for crimes against women.
Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath is against lowering the age of juvenile criminals from 18 to 16, an issue which came into focus after the Delhi gang-rape, in which one of the accused is a juvenile.
The sources said the government needed to be careful on defining provisions which made stalking and voyeurism punishable under law as these might be challenged in a court.
The GoM will be headed by Chidambaram and its other members include Shinde, Tirath, Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and Communications Minister Kapil Sibal.
"The PM (prime minister) formed the GoM and we will meet Wednesday or Thursday and I'm confident we will arrive at consensus and, either Friday or Monday, the bill will be taken up in the house," Ashwani Kumar told reporters.
Proposing the death penalty in the rarest of rare cases of rape and for repeat offenders while keeping marital rape out of its ambit, the ordinance was framed by the government as evidence of its intention to treat the issue of crimes against women with urgency.
It also incorporated suggestions of the Justice J.S. Verma Committee formed to give views to make anti-rape laws more strong.
Bharatiya Janata Party's Rajiv Pratap Rudy, taking a dig at the government, said: "The whole country is waiting and watching for the law to be placed and passed in parliament...Law and justice ministry and home ministry are at loggerheads and we are not interested in the battle between the two departments."
Women's rights activist accused the government of lacking political will to bring a stronger law for protection of women.
"They are again reopening ordinances which were already deliberated upon. This is dismaying. It is apparent that there are voices within the government, who are against bringing a stronger law," Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women's Association said.
Rights lawyer Vrinda Grover said: "It is a very sad. The government does not have a political will to bring a stronger anti-rape law. There seem to be a political class within the government that does not want a stronger law."