Criminal law: Outraging modesty of a woman

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

Even amidst the covid-19 lockdown, crimes against women are reportedly increasing. Domestic violence has increased manifold and several heinous crimes against women are being committed at the same pace. Therefore, the situation with the safety of women doesn’t seem to have changed much, despite a curfew being in place. On the 18th of May, a 47-year-old man was booked for allegedly molesting a teen girl and just five days prior, on the 13th of May, a case was registered under section 354 of the IPC against the stepfather of a girl whom he allegedly molested. Therefore, instances of molestation or in other words, instances of a woman’s modesty being outraged are being reported ever more.

Definition of ‘modesty’:

Section 354 of the IPC,1860 deals with an assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty. Until 2007, there was a lot of ambiguity as to what constituted a woman’s modesty and various speculations regarding the definition of modesty of a woman were present. Several cases were decided without a precise definition of a woman’s modesty.

 However, the supreme court in in the case of Ramkripal v. State of Madhya Pradesh, defined modesty by laying down that the ‘essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex’. Therefore, any crime against women which falls short of penetration would constitute an offence under section 354 of the IPC, expanding the ambit of crimes falling under this section.

It was further held in the Judgement that the word ‘modesty’ is not to be interpreted with reference to a particular victim of an act, but as an attribute associated with female human being which reflects a particular class. Therefore, modesty can be pertaining to a female human being of any age with differing degrees of what would constitute modesty at a given age of a female.

These group of words can often be substituted with molestation which means to force physical and usually sexual contact on someone and to make unwanted or improper sexual advances towards someone and a female of any age can be molested.

Relevant legal provisions:

Section 354 of the IPC, 1860 has its place under chapter XVI of the IPC,1860 which deals with ‘offences against the human body’. The section runs as follows:

Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty.—Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it be likely  that he will there by outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine.”        

The punishment for an offence under this section is imprisonment of either description (simple or rigorous) for one to five years with a fine. The offence is classified as cognizable, non-bailable and triable by any magistrate.
 

Section 351 of the IPC,1860 lays down what constitutes an assault. The section states that ‘Whoever makes any gesture, or any preparation intending or knowing it to be likely that such gesture or prepa­ration will cause any person present to apprehend that he who makes that gesture or preparation is about to use criminal force to that person, is said to commit an assault.’ While section 350 defines criminal force as the intentional use of force to cause injury, fear or annoyance to the person whom such force is used.

 It is to be noted here that existence of an intention and knowledge is the main ingredient for an offence to fall under section 354 of the IPC. Therefore, if a man unknowingly or unintentionally commits a crime which would fall under the ambit of the section, he cannot be held liable. Moreover, absence of reaction or retaliation from the victim is not a decisive factor to absolve the accused of his liability.

 Yet another section of the IPC, section 509 deals with words, gestures or acts intended to insult the modesty of a woman. Offences of a less severe degree in comparison with section 354 fall under the ambit of this section. This section is also commonly referred to as the ‘eve-teasing section’ and finds its place under chapter XXII of the IPC which deals with offences of criminal intimidation, insult and annoyance.

 The main difference as to sections 509 and section 354 of the IPC is that, when an act goes beyond causing insult to the modesty of a woman, with a clear threat of physical harm to the woman which also shocks the sense of modesty, such an offence is addressed by section 354 and therefore, offences under section 354 are more serious in nature in comparison with those falling under section 509 of the IPC.

Salient features:
 

Therefore, the salient features of an offence falling under Section 354 of the IPC,1860 are as follows. 

  1. An act or omission must have been committed against a woman.

  2. The accused must have assaulted or used criminal force against the victim.
  • There must be an intention on the part of the accused to outrage the modesty of the woman or a knowledge that such an act would outrage her modesty.

  • Absence of reaction or retaliation from the victim is not a decisive factor to absolve the accused of his liability.

  • A female of any age, including an infant can be molested and such acts fall under the ambit of this section. Although, the degree of modesty an infant possesses differs from the degree of modesty an adult female possesses, the severity of the act and intention/knowledge of the accused must be given the utmost consideration and not the state of mind of the victim.

  • A person committing an offence under this section is liable for an imprisonment of either description for a period of one to five years, and is also liable to pay a fine. The victim is entitled to compensation.

  • An offence under this section is cognizable, non-bailable and triable by any magistrate.

  • The essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex.

Landmark judgements:

1. State of Punjab v. Major Singh, AIR 1967 SC 63:
 

In this case, the accused interfered with the vagina of a seven and half month-old child and was tried under section 354 of the IPC. The Patna and Haryana high courts held that the modesty of the victim could not be outraged as the victim was of a tender age. However, in an appeal to the Supreme Court, the apex court held that knowledge or intention on the part of the accused is the decisive factor and not the feelings of the woman against whom such an act is committed. Moreover, where such an intention or knowledge has not been proved, the proof of the fact that the woman felt her modesty was outraged does not constitute an offence, as an intention or knowledge on the part of the accused is the essential ingredient.
 

Therefore, the appeal was allowed and the accused was convicted by the Supreme court and was awarded rigorous imprisonment for a period of  two years. A fine of rupees 1000/- was to be paid by the accused out of which rupees 500/- was paid as a compensation to the child.

2.Ramkripal Singh v. State of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 2007 (crl.) SC 370

In this landmark case, the Supreme Court finally defined modesty by laying down that the essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex. The term modesty in relation to a woman was defined as “Decorous in manner and conduct; not forward or lower; Shame-fast; scrupulously chaste”. The accused pleaded that he be given a lighter punishment and that he be lest held liable under section 354 for outraging a woman’s modesty. However, as penetration had taken place, the supreme court held that it constituted rape. Only acts which stop short of penetration fall under the ambit of section 354 of the IPC. Therefore, the appeal was dismissed.

3.Ram Pratap v. State of Rajasthan

Where the accused allegedly entered the victim’s house when she was alone and forced her to lie on a cot and misbehaved with her, but no preparation to commit rape was done, the accused was held guilty under Section 354 of the IPC,1860.

Critical analysis:

Section 354 makes an assault or use of criminal force against a woman with an intention to outrage her modesty a punishable offence. Moreover, the intention or knowledge of the accused is the decisive factor and the state of mind of the victim is not.
 

In addition, it is to be noted here that Section 354 is gender-neutral and even a woman can outrage the modesty of another woman as the terminology of the section goes “whoeverassaults or uses criminal force…”   The main ingredient of the offence is an intention to outrage a woman’s modesty. Therefore, the circumstances of each case are taken into account to hold a person liable under this section.
 

Since, the state of mind of the victim is not heeded much importance, there have been several instances of the section being misused. Thus, where a man accidentally touched a woman’s belly in a running bus and there was no such intention on the part of the accused to outrage the woman’s modesty, he was held ‘not guilty’.

Conclusion:

Therefore, it can be concluded that section 354 addresses offences against women which falls short of rape and therefore, grants protection against exploitation of women. Crimes against women are increasing and laws protecting women are crucial. It can thus be concluded that this section serves its purpose right in granting protection to women against whom such indecent and immoral acts are committed.

Author: A. Saradha Devi from Mody University, Lakshamangarh.

Editor: Avani Laad from Symbiosis Law School, Pune.




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