Justice Verma panel shows the way; now comes the hard part

Perhaps the most sterling contribution of the Justice JS Verma Commission, established a month ago in the wake of the horrific gang-rape incident in Delhi, is that it has virtually drawn up a Bill of Rights for women by framing sexual assaults against women in a larger socio-politico-legal context and thereby providing a framework with an all-seeing, 360-degree view to address the complex problem at several levels.

The Commission's voluminous 657-page report (here), delivered on the dot to abide by the one-month deadline it was given, provides immense clarity by filtering out the chatter born of  justifiable popular outrage - which manifested itself in, for instance, calls for the death penalty for rapists - and instead providing a blueprint for concrete action that is both reasoned and radical.

The Commission's terms of reference had provided for  a rather more limited ambit: to make recommendations to amend the criminal law to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assaults on women. But the three-member Commission, comprising Justice JS Verma and legal luminaries Justice Leila Seth and Gopal Subramaniam, correctly went over the top, by providing a bird's-eye overview of the context in which such crimes happen.

The Justice JS Verma Commission has addressed the roots of misogyny in India. Image: ibnlive

The Justice JS Verma Commission has addressed the roots of misogyny in India. Image: ibnlive

In so doing, the learned members of the Commission ensured that even while they waded into the legal minutiae of the proposed changes to the criminal law, they would not lose themselves in the labyrinth of legalese or the maze of microdetails. Instead, they have held up a beacon that lights the path towards genuine gender justice that goes beyond the reflexive resort to tweaking the law.

By identifying misgovernance and the frameworks of patriarchy in society as the  foundation upon which crimes against women occur, the Commission has also given agencies other than the government, the lawmakers, the police and the judiciary sufficient cause to reflect on the extent to which elements of civil society at large contribute to the climate of misogyny that feeds the commodification of women and, ultimately,  acts of sexual assault and violence against women.

For all of us who were seething with impotent rage in the immediate aftermath of the gang-rape incident, the most frustrating aspect of the initial popular response was that it appeared to frame it entirely in a legalistic context and sought remedy in asking for the public hanging of the rapists. Pretty soon, of course, the worms of patriarchy started crawling out of the woodworks to provide pop-sociological alibis for the rapists.

But even  those who were able connect the dots and frame the rape in the larger context of societal attitudes towards women were overwhelmed by the number of fronts on which the battle had to be waged: police apathy that manifests itself in their blaming the victims of rape; political parties that nominate criminals, including rapists, for election to Parliament and State Assemblies; the widespread commodification of women in the media, advertising industry and in films; self-appointed khap panchayats that peddle perverse patriarchy as 'law' and go virtually unchallenged; religious leaders who provide  scriptural sanction for misogyny...  One just didn't know where to begin.

The Justice Verma Commission's all-seeing eye takes all of this in, and the sheer breadth of the canvas on which the Commission has painted its recommendation is awe-inspiring. First and foremost, the Commission underlines the State's responsibility under the Constitution to protect the "right to life with all aspects of human dignity for women". But it also points out that it isn't just about the State: every citizen of India has a "fundamental duty" under Article 51A of the Constitution "to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women."

Going into specifics, the Commission report makes concrete recommendations in respect of electoral reforms, police reforms, "education and perception reform",  measures to deal with extra-judicial authorities like the khap panchayats, child sexual abuse, trafficking in women,  stalking, cyberstalking, sexual harassment in the workplace, medico-legal examinations of victims of sexual assault, and so on.

 

More strikingly, the Commission report did not shirk from addressing what will likely prove contentious subjects - such as its recommendation that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) be reviewed to do away with the immunity given to armed forces personnel accused of sexual violence in conflict areas.

In its entirety, the Commission report offers measured, yet radical, recommendations to meaningfully address the problem of sexual assault and violence against women at many levels, including at the foundational level of societal patriarchy. For the sheer intellectual rigour of the Commission's exertions, and for its attempt to channel the outrage of civil society without yielding to the knee-jerk bloodlust emotion of the moment, its members deserve the gratitude of the entire nation.

Yet, even with such a lucid template for action, the challenges ahead in implementing the Commission's recommendations are not inconsiderable. The very same agencies that enabled the rot to set in so deep will work overtime to ensure that none of the more radical recommendations are implemented. The political establishment will bristle at suggestions to amend the electoral law to disbar candidates accused of sexual violence. Police authorities will push back against prosecution of police officials for dereliction or worse in rape cases.  The armed forces will claim that reviewing the AFSPA will weaken their hands in their fight against insurgency in conflict zones. And even the entertainment industry will protest that its creative freedom is being encroached upon by demands to reel in egregious instances of the commodification of women.

In that sense, the hard part of getting the Commission's recommendations implemented lies ahead.  Which is why it is important to channel the same vigilance, anger and outrage that we witnessed in the days and weeks following the gang-rape incident and ensure that we don't let this moment pass quietly into the night.

It's true, of course, that at the first level, the societal and legal pendulum, which has so far swung so far to one extreme - and provided the space for sexual violence and assaults on women to continue for so long -  could now swing to the other extreme - and seek to "police" every aspect of interaction between the sexes. That is clearly not a consummation that is desirable. Yet, that prospect should not hold back efforts to even begin to address the very serious problem of gender injustice that bedevils our society and taints us in shameful ways.

 

Even if it swings too far to the other side, the pendulum will eventually find its equilibrium. And that world will be a whole lot more liveable for the women of India than the current hell that they've been thrown into.