On 24 December 2012, faced with escalating public protests in the wake of the Delhi bus gangrape, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde announced the formation of a three-member committee headed by former Chief Justice of India JS Verma to “suggest ways for improving safety and security of women”, including the adoption of “stricter rape laws.”
Shinde’s intent was probably just to defuse the gender bomb ticking in Delhi’s unsafe streets. What he has now been lobbed is a nuclear bomb whose intent is less to deal with the crime of rape, and more with the unyielding nature of Indian patriarchy, the unresponsiveness of a decrepit Indian state and its policing arms, and the atrophy of constitutional institutions.
In short, the Justice Verma report (read the full report here) is a recipe for total revolution. What is being demanded in the name of women’s rights – including a Bill of Rights – is actually applicable to every member of Indian society. The Anna Hazare anti-corruption agitation was a sideshow compared to this.
If even a tenth of its recommendations are implemented, we are going to see a sea change in the kind of politicians we elect, a complete overhaul of the police system, huge investments in legal infrastructure, and massive investments in gender sensitisation of schools and even parents and elders, among other things. And yes, it also would make rape and sexual harassment and assaults expensive for all violators.
At the very least, given honest executive intent, we will see major changes in election laws to filter out sexual offenders and potential criminals, a reduction in politicians penchant to influence the police, higher accountability in the police force for the wrongs committed by their junior officers and constables by introducing a “command” responsibility, and so on and so forth.
This is why it is difficult to avoid cynicism about where the 631-page report will end up. In the dustbin of history or on academic bookshelves? Just on bookshelves, or on the statute books? Just on the statute books, or in actual police manuals and training programmes? Just in instruction manuals, or also school curricula?
Blueprints to turn a society upside down are never implemented during the lifetime of a prophet, even if the prophet happens to be a well-regarded former Supreme Court judge appointed by the government. Prophetic wisdom is first rejected, and then grudgingly imbibed in smaller doses, over time. A long time.
Consider just a few of the Verma committee’s suggestions – and the kind of opposition it could face.
The most worrying suggestion of the committee (from the point of view of the establishment) relates not to the laws it has proposed to change, but its bold assertion that it is not the laws, but the law’s enforcers who must change. So it has not bothered to do anything more than make small suggestions on rape law. The government would have been happy if the committee had called for the death penalty of chemical castration, which it could have happily incorporated into the law or given the idea to yet another committee to study.
But the committee has given the government no such opportunity as it has pointed its accusatory finger directly at the executive – both state and centre – by saying it is not implementing the law. “Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law, and not the want of needed legislation.”
And further: “The committee has been reassured that strict observance and faithful implementation of the constitutional mandate and the existing laws by a competent machinery is sufficient to prevent, and if need be, to punish any sexual harassment or assault; and the improvement needed in the laws, if any, is marginal, to await which is no excuse for the impairment of the rule of law.
In short, the message is: act, don’t procrastinate. Shinde now has to get up and get going.
But having said that, the committee recommends a host of changes in laws that will hit the powerful where it hurts most. It has proposed changes in the Representation of the People Act to debar candidates whose anti-women crimes have been taken cognisance of (even if they are not convicted); it has castigated the Election Commission for not keeping up-to-date records on the crimes candidates have been accused of and for not verifying their antecedents; it has asked for changes in the Armed Forces Special Powers Act so that the police and civil society can inquire into crimes by army personnel; it has called for police reforms that almost all states have resisted so far. It has even asked for changes in street lighting to prevent crimes and, straying far afield from its brief, has even called for encouragement of street vendors to make bus-stops and footpaths safe for women.
Some obvious inferences are unavoidable.
First, this is not merely the work of the Justice Verma and his two co-members, Justice (Retd) Leila Seth, and Gopal Subramanium, former Additional Solicitor General. From the language of the report and the deep inferences and quotations drawn from sociologists, international studies, and global jurisprudence, it is clear that social activists and NGOs have had a disproportionate influence in the composition of the report.
Second, the magisterial nature of the work makes it a great approach document, but there is a huge disconnect between what it prescribes and what current Indian social reality is about. The intellectual and ethical underpinnings of the report are ultra urban in character, and make no allowances for the actual state of Indian society in transformation at multiple levels.
Third, the report makes almost no allowance for social and cultural norms, which will put it in conflict with current Indian political realities. While no one will dispute its statement that khap panchayats are operating outside the ambit of constitutionality by prescribing honour killings for swagotra and inter-caste marriages, it recommends an override for human rights over extant community laws. Thus all marriages have to be recorded before a magistrate, something minority communities with their own personal laws will find difficult to swallow.
Fourth, the committee’s blind spot has been the judiciary – not surprising, since two of its three members are former judges. While politicians and the police come under harsh scrutiny, the committee has done little to excoriate the judiciary, which has been an accessory to crimes against women by delaying verdicts and adopting gender-insensitive attitudes. While politicians can be barred and policemen sacked for not doing their jobs, nothing will happen to judges who delay justice. Beyond an exhortation to the judiciary “to step in to discharge the constitutional mandate of enforcing fundamental rights and implementation of the rule of law,” the judiciary has been treated with kid gloves.
But the critiques are less important that what Justice Verma and his army of helpers have achieved. They have given us a roadmap and an attitudinal compass for a truly egalitarian and equal society.
But it’s a roadmap for 2030 – not just today. It needs more than just a few changes in the law or actions by a few members of the state or the police. It requires action from all of us. Are we ready for the challenge?