New Delhi: The Indian Supreme Court quashed on Thursday a controversial order by the Bombay High Court which had acquitted a man of the charge of sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl on the basis that "there was no skin-to-skin contact" with the victim.
The Bombay High Court order passed in January had created a furore and prompted several activists and legal experts to come out in protest against it and ask the highest court to nullify it.
The Supreme Court bench said the relevant point in such a case is the intent of the accused and not merely whether there was skin-to-skin contact.
The Bombay High Court order had said that "groping a minor's breast without 'skin to skin contact' can't be termed as sexual assault under POCSO".
The Supreme Court bench comprising Justices UU Lalit, SR Bhat, and Bela M Trivedi heard among others, Attorney General KK Venugopal who opposed the Bombay HC verdict arguing that the court's interpretation would mean that "someone can wear a surgical glove and exploit a child and get away scot-free".
He had also argued that it will be treated as precedent and the result will be "devastating".
"Restricting it to skin-to-skin would not only be a narrow and pedantic interpretation, but will also lead to absurd interpretation of the provision," the SC verdict was quoted by news portals as saying.
The judges said the Mumbai high court order had "insensitively legitimised sexual behaviour" and that "the purpose of law cannot be to allow the offender to sneak out of the provisions of the law".
The accused was a 39-year-old man and charged with groping a 12-year-old girl. The child's mother had alleged that he had lured her daughter to his home where he made the assault.
Although a trial court convicted him for sexual assault of the child under Pocso (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act and sentenced him to three years in jail, on 12 January, Bombay High Court judge Pushpa Ganediwala ruled that pressing the girl's breast without removing her top was not sexual assault; there was no skin-to-skin contact and it would only invite the lesser charge of molestation.
Several petitions were filed in the top court to overturn the High Court order. Among those who challenged the HC verdict were, besides the Attorney General, National Commission of Women, State of Maharashtra, and Youth Bar Association of India who argued that that such observations would have a wide impact on the entire society and public at large.
On 27 January, the Supreme Court stayed the order. Now with Thursday's SC order, the accused will have to serve the three-year jail term given by the trial court.