When 24-year-old Saumya Saxena landed in India on a break from PhD in Cambridge University, she had no clue that she would be contributing to one of the most talked about judicial committees in India. She was in Delhi on 23 December when the Ministry of Home Affairs constituted three members Justice Verma Committee to suggest amendments to criminal law in order to tackle sexual crimes against women.
“One of the lawyers told me that the committee wanted helping hands. I formally applied for assistance by sending my research work and resume. And I was on board,” said Saxena, the youngest of the 16 advocates and law students who helped the committee draft the report.
The subject of Saumya’s doctoral research was ‘the impact of uniform civil code on gender in India’ and she studied public policy and gender during her Masters. But working with the committee gave her research a completely new direction, she said.
“From criticising the system, I was now in a position to suggest solutions,” she said.
The brief given to the team, explains Abhishek Tewary, the committee’s counsel and in-charge of drafting of the report, was somewhere half way.
“We had to be holistic and we were clear that we would not work specifically on laws related to rape. Under various heads, we had to offer the most practical solutions,” he said.
In the beginning, every team member picked everything he or she thought was related to gender justice. When the team grew bigger and roles became clearer, they shifted from the government allotted one-room office at Vigyan Bhavan to justice Gopal Subramaniam’s spacious workplace in Jor Bagh area.
Here, they scanned government documents which were scattered in cartons on the floor, met members of civil society, read around 80,000 emails, classified information under various heads and transcribed prolonged dictations given by Subramaniam, some of which continued into the wee hours of the night.
The team was wary of the fact that it was working on a document everyone was waiting for.
“We were conscious of the fact that it was not just any other piece of work. That was a motivational factor. We had to set a precedent,” said 27-year-old Talha Abdul Rahman, for whom the report was his maiden assignment during his stint in former solicitor general’s office.
The committee did not try to play God. There were free flowing discussions while drafting of the report. There was brainstorming among the team members and civil society members on every crucial issue including death penalty or chemical castration for rapists, punishment for trafficking and lowering the age-bar for juvenile offenders, said Talha.
They were familiar with the criticism that Indian laws often imitate foreign precedents and law makers in India don’t think of an Indian context while drafting laws.
“We wanted to draft offences which could work in the Indian milieu. For example, we have given a definition of stalking that is different from how the offence is defined in laws across the globe,” said Shwetasree Majumder, a lawyer who has been practising for around a decade and works on gender issues on a pro bono basis.
In the UK, she said, repeated following of a person constitutes the offence of stalking.
“But that will not work in India. So, we said stalking includes attempts to contact such person to foster personal interaction repeatedly, despite a clear indication of disinterest by such person,” she said.
Majumder contributed to two chapters in the report- medico-legal examination of the victim and proposed criminal law amendments.
Out of 16 persons who helped the committee, Saumya and Shwetasree were the only two who had prior experience of working on gender issues.
“That was because there are very few lawyers in the country who specialise in gender justice. We were drawing help from experts and advocacy groups who work in this field. Technically they were not part of the team but they contributed through their oral submissions and documents,” said Tewary, about the team’s composition.
As litigants, many of the team members were well versed with the criminal jurisprudence and related issues. But they were many surprises during the course of 30 days of work. Data on trafficked children, the laid back attitude of the authorities to deal with such offences and that some governments were not even aware of the year-old MHA advisory to trace missing children shocked many of them.
The month- long heavy duty discussions had their fun moments too. Saumya turned 24 and Justice Verma touched 80 during the writing of the report.
“We had a great time despite the seriousness of the work. Not to mention the beverages in Justice Subramaniam’s office. The coffee they serve can beat any other coffee on earth,” said Saumya.