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opinion

Amrit Dhillon is a journalist based in New Delhi.

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It is all right for an Indian man to rape his wife because Indian culture is different and Western notions of marital rape cannot be applied to it. That, pretty much, is the gist of what Maneka Gandhi, India's Minister for Women and Child Development, told MPs recently.

Ms. Gandhi's comments, indicative of the government's thinking on the issue, are the latest contribution to a long-running debate in India as to whether marital rape should be made a criminal offence. Laws on marital rape cannot be "suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, etc.," the minister said in a written reply in the upper house of Parliament.

Her response provoked howls of protest, though she was trotting out a view that is popular in some quarters of Indian society – that Indian culture is "exceptional" and thus must be measured differently from that of the West. This view postulates that Indian culture is superior to Western culture, that its values are stronger and that the institution of marriage is more sacrosanct.

This is bunkum. If Indian culture is exceptional in any way, it is only in how it is exceptionally cruel to women, who must bow to male dominance and have little say over their lives, from childhood to old age.

Many committees and commissions have been set up over the years to advise governments on whether marital rape should be criminalized and most have argued against it, for reasons similar to the ones given by Ms. Gandhi. After the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape, however, the Justice Verma Commission, set up to look into violence against women, recommended that the law be amended to specify that a marital relationship is not a valid defence against rape. Given Ms. Gandhi's statement, the government clearly plans to ignore that recommendation.

This is a mistake. It is precisely the patriarchy embedded in Indian culture that makes it imperative for wives to be protected against forced sex by their husbands. It is precisely the poverty and illiteracy that Ms. Gandhi cited that leave many women vulnerable and in need of legal protection (more so than wealthy, educated women).

Opponents of making marital rape a crime argue that marriages will be weakened by false allegations. Considering the reluctance with which Indian women report rape by a stranger, it is unlikely that wives would be queuing up outside police stations to make false allegations against their husbands. Another argument is that men would be sitting ducks, with only their word against that of their wives. Given that marital rape is a crime in more than 50 countries, it is presumably possible to include safeguards to protect husbands from unfounded allegations.

Domestic violence is a crime in India. If authorities can intervene in that intimate area between spouses, why should rape be any different? And if marriage is sacred, someone should tell Indian men to respect its sanctity by not forcing sex on their wives. In 2011, the International Center for Research on Women found that 20 per cent of Indian men admitted that they had forced their wives or partners to have sex.

Talking about culture is irrelevant. The issue is not about culture, Indian or Western, but about consent and a woman's right to dignity. It's time for India to make forced sex within marriage a crime.