Governments, both at the Centre and in the states, irrespective of their political complexion, are notorious for their prevarication. They generally see through crises and buy time by appointing commissions and committees headed by superannuated civil servants or judges. I do not want to mention the names of persons so favoured recently in order to avoid embarrassment at high places.
After this motivated exercise, however, once these bodies report back to government, their laboured documents are allowed to gather dust in government archives. My apprehension is that the same fate awaits the well-conceived and drafted analysis that Justice JS Verma has given the nation after clinically analysing what contributed to the Delhi gangrape and killing in December. My misgiving arises from the studied silence of those in authority in North Block for more than 24 hours after the release of the report.
What we have heard till now are some whispers and grunts alone, and also the usual apologies for not having read the report in full. Not that those who should have made forthright statements are dishonorable men. They are all undoubtedly well motivated, especially in respect of violence against our women, a burning subject that is beyond the pale of politics and politicking. But these individuals in vital positions want to be politically correct, and not take a single false step forward, lest they offend those who wield power in these dark days, when not a day passes without some woman or girl child getting violated in some part of the country.
I am certain that Justice Verma himself is quite conscious of this prospect of being ignored after his committee had burned the midnight oil and produced an easily comprehensible charter of action. He chose to put in hard labour, possibly because of his sense of commitment to society. He is a role model for probity and fearlessness, and if only we had a few more of his ilk, public life in India would be less inelegant.
The Verma Committee does make many generalisations, some refreshing and some trite. Nevertheless each one of them is worthy of some introspection and deliberation. For instance, who can disagree with one of the searing opening statements: ‘“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.”
This candid and sharp overview of the current appalling situation in the country sets the tone for the whole report. As is his wont, Justice Verma pulls no punches, something that should make people uncomfortable in the corridors of power. His appointment to head the committee itself was a surprise because of his well-known views on what is wrong with the general administration, particularly criminal justice administration, in India. But the poverty of talent and integrity left the government with no alternative but to choose him.
Even if the committee has not set the Yamuna on fire, it has done yeoman service to the nation by analysing the malady and setting the roadmap for reform. Critical issues governing protection of women and children could not have been explained with greater clarity. I would like to see the highlights of the report summarised in simple terms and translated into all our languages so that the common man understands what is at stake for him and the female members of his family.
I am happy that the committee desisted from playing to the gallery and rejected the vociferous rabble-rousing demand for death penalties to rapists from many quarters. Apart from agreeing to an enhancement of the maximum punishment of 10 years for a rape, it settled for a term of 20 years or the rest of life in prison for a rapist guilty of causing death or leaving the victim in a ‘vegetative state’. This endorses the sane view that enhancing the penalty to death only pushes up the standard of proof of guilt so high that many cases would fail in court and the accused walk to freedom with impunity. Gangrape will also attract the same penalty, and when it results in death or causes a vegetative state in the victim, the offenders will be locked up in prison for the rest of their lives.
Also, marital rape will be recognised as an offence. The committee makes it mandatory for the registration of an FIR in respect of every complaint of rape. (Suppression of complaints is the order of the day, especially in rural areas.) New offences of disrobing a woman, trafficking and stalking have also been recommended.
An end to the differential treatment of members of the armed forces in conflict areas is a recommendation that is bound to be contentious, and is likely to be resisted by the service chiefs on the ground that specious complaints in forward areas will become the order of the day, and these could demoralise service personnel. This unfortunately cannot be brushed aside as an imaginary fear, going by the enormous complexity of the internal security scene.
I am somewhat dismayed by the severe indictment of the Delhi Police for its handling of the gangrape assault and killing. Not that this force is flawless or is totally honest and free from brutality. We must, however, remember that there is no single formula for containing demonstrations of the kind we saw on this occasion. Police forces the world over have been assailed for their mismanagement of mobs by either over-reacting or underestimating the fury and organisation behind protests.
The Delhi Police says that it had to use water cannons, etc., only to prevent the demonstrators from reaching Rashtrapati Bhavan. This is a stand that is difficult to counter without facts being clear. In any case the benefit of doubt should go to any police force that faces a mob comprising women or youth, unless you can decisively prove wanton brutality on its part.
Justice Verma’s recommendation for a relook at the arrangement of Delhi Police reporting to the home ministry, instead of Delhi’s Chief Minister, is most welcome. But vested interests want the continuance of the existing strange arrangement. Despite all her clout Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has not been able to achieve this. Who else can?
I am most impressed by the committee’s fervent plea for police reforms as enunciated by former Uttar Pradesh DGP Prakash Singh in his public interest litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court, and the latter’s endorsement of it a few years ago. State governments have been openly lukewarm about their implementation. Justice Verma has been forthright here and elsewhere that an independent police is the sine qua non of good governance and respect for law. Our netas do not, however, subscribe to this wholesome philosophy. They equate democracy with total control over the police.
Justice Verma’s cry is therefore a voice in wilderness. He wants the average policeman to understand that his accountability is to the law and not the government or party in power. He commends the same credo to the CBI on whom he comes down heavily. All of us know that no political party wants either the police or the CBI to be autonomous. But then, do we give up this fight so easily? No, not at all.
Let Justice Verma be the rallying point. We may not witness the changes which we desire and the country so badly needs. Let us hope that at least our grandchildren would see this dream come true.
The writer is a former CBI Director