The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has quietly removed the Justice JS Verma Committee report from its official website mha.nic.in. The move raises two pertinent questions: at what level was the decision to put up the report was initially taken? Who took the decision to remove it and for what purpose?
As the screen shots of the ministry’s home page reveals, the report was put up on the site after it was submitted to the government on 23 January. On 24 January an icon for the report appeared prominently at two places on the page, right below the picture of Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and also on the top in 'What's New' section. However, even when it was posted there it had a technical glitch. The 644-page report could not be downloaded. It was subsequently removed sometime after the extended weekend between 25 and 27 January. (You can read the full report here)
Currently, a picture of a very pleased looking Sushilkumar Shinde is still there but conspicuously missing is any word on Justice Verma's report. Was the report removed because of Justice Verma's adverse remarks on the ministry?
He had slammed home secretary RK Singh for praising the Delhi Police for their 'swift' action against the accused in the Delhi gangrape case. He had blamed "institutional apathy" and failure of law enforcement authorities to come across as credible agencies capable of faithfully and fairly implementing laws. He had also criticised state police chiefs for not appearing before the committee.
"The commissioner of police was given a pat on his back by no less than a person holding the post of home secretary. I was shocked to see that," Justice Verma had said after submitting the report.
In an interview to CNN-IBN, Justice Verma later revealed that Home Minister Shinde, the most important stakeholder in the issue, did not interact with him or the committee even once during the one month period that it took to prepare and submit its report. He added that the committee had been constituted upon instructions from the prime minister, who chose to convey the decision through Finance Minister P Chidambaram, rather than the home minister. The revelation clearly suggests that the two did not share even basic confidence.
Earlier, Shinde had asked all political parties to send their suggestions on tightening the legal provisions with regard to rape cases directly to Justice Verma Committee.
Even as a week has passed since the report was presented to the government, there is still no clarity on how the government intends to go ahead with its recommendations and how many of these it is inclined to accept. The government is considering convening an all-party meeting ahead of the budget session to discuss the recommendations.
There is a great deal of resentment among security forces on a recommendation that seeks insertion of a new clause – offence of breach of command responsibility. It seeks an amendment in the Indian Penal Code and prescribes rigorous imprisonment of not less than seven years and up to 10 years.
The new clause (f) in the Section 376—it deals with the punishment for rape—says that if a public servant in command, control or supervision of police or armed forces fails to exercise control over persons under him or her, and as a result of such failure sexual crimes are committed, then the officer will be guilty of the offence of breach of command responsibility.
The officers in the security agencies are opposed to it on two counts: how could a commanding officer be responsible for conduct of his sub-ordinate jawan or officer, like a teacher being punished for the conduct of student? Second, there have been instances in insurgency-hit areas where false rape claims have been filed to malign the force.
Law Minister Ashwini Kumar had hinted that a review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was a difficult issue "because the context is different". "How do you divide the action taken in the line of duty where the circumstances are such that nobody knows what is going to happen," he is reported to have said. The law minister also does not favour the panel’s recommendation that electoral candidates who face charges under offences which warrant at least five years of imprisonment be disqualified. His argument is it could be applicable only after conviction.