The Union Cabinet has responded with uncharacteristic alacrity to operationalise some of the critical recommendations of the Justice JS Verma Committee in respect of amendments to the criminal law in the wake of the Delhi gang-rape horror of December.
Evidently to spike the growing criticism that the government was dragging its feet on the report, which virtually drew up a Bill of Rights for women, the Cabinet has decided to promulgate an Ordinance incorporating amendments to the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Evidence Act in order to enhance the punishment for 'sexual assault'.
The resort to the Ordinance route, rather than abiding by the due (and time-consuming) process of Parliamentary law-making, is perhaps intended to show the same sense of urgency that the Committee exhibited in drawing up its report, and to leverage the prevailing mood of the moment in the wake of the gang-rape and the countless instances of sexual assault that have been reported since then.
At one level, the government has gone beyond the recommendation of the Verma Committee by providing for death for rapists - in the rarest of rare cases. The Verma Committee had actively considered the demand for death for rapists, but had rejected it, citing the ongoing debate on the demerits of the death penalty as a deterrent force. The Committee had, however, noted that in the event of a rape-murder (of the sort that has bestirred the government and civil society to act against widespread sexual assaults on women), the penal provision for murder would automatically consider the death penalty.
Additionally, the ordinance is likely to enhance the maximum punishment for convicted rapists from the current seven years to 20 years or the rest of the rapist's natural life. Just as strikingly, the ordinance seeks to criminalise sexual harassment - to mean everything from groping to cat-calling to stalking. More broadly, the new law seeks to broaden the canvas for penal action, by replacing the word 'rape' with 'sexual assault'.
To the extent that the government has begun the process of operationalising the far-sighted Verma Committee report, its labours are to be acknowledged, particularly given the apprehension that the government was less than earnest about implementing it.
As CPI(M) Politburo member Brinda Karat observes (here), the "deafening silence" from official circles in the days following the submission of the Verma Committee report had lent credence to the suspicion that the government had set up the Committee only to take the heat off itself and buy itself some time. "Perhaps that was the government's intention when it set up the committee at the height of the protests in the wake of the brutal gangrape in Delhi but did not provide even the minimum required infrastructural support to it," she adds.
Karat cites the abysmal record of successive governments to act on specific instances of sexual abuse, including child sexual abuse. Indicatively, it took 18 years for the legislation on child sexual abuse to be adopted - and the legislation on prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace took 15 years (after a landmark Supreme Court judgement) to become a Bill, which is still held up in the Rajya Sabha.
By opting for the Ordinance route, the government has certainly gotten off the blocks a lot faster. It will become law as soon as the President signs and promulgates it, but it still needs to be ratified by Parliament within six months.
Yet, for all the appreciable urgency that the government has manifested, it appears to have merely gone after the low hanging fruit of the recommendations of the Verma Committee report. There is nothing to suggest in the government's ordinance provision that it is just as earnest about addressing the more contentious aspects of the recommendations - such as marital rape or the provision to criminalise sexual assault by members of the armed forces by stripping them of the immunity under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act or the legal irrevalence of khap panchayat verdicts.
The Verma Committee report, as Firstpost had acknowledged here, provided all-seeing, 360-degree view of the cultural and social and administrative landscape in which sexual assaults (on women, but also against homosexuals and transgenders) occur. It also went to the roots of the problem of patriarchy that underlies prevailing social attitudes towards women, which create an enabling atmosphere for crimes to occur.
To cherry-pick from the report's recommendations, based on the expedience of the moment or to avoid the more contentious and unpopular aspects of the complex issue, does no justice to the labours of the Verma Committee. Admittedly, those require more long-term interventions, through education and social sensitisation channels. But the longer the government delays addressing them, the less likely are they to be taken up with earnestness, particularly if the outrage of the moment (following the gang-rape) dissipates, as it inevitably will.
A job well-begun is half done. In that sense, the government has shown uncharacteristic, but commendable, alacrity in getting off the blocks by coming up with an ordinance that addresses some of the key recommendations of the Verma Committee. But the job is still only half done. The government must channel the same diligence and urgency in taking up the more controversial provisions of the report - and demonstrate that it has the political will to see them them through.