Palaniappan Chidambaram did a good job of defending the government’s ordinance on amending criminal laws on rape when he said that the non-inclusion of some of the recommendations of the Justice JS Verma Committee does not amount to their rejection.
The “correct position,” he said, was none of the recommendations had been rejected. Those changes that did not find their way into the ordinance could be earmarked for a broader debate. Nobody should actually have any quarrel with this position as long as it is sincere.
However, the debate needs to be reopened not only at the legislative end, but also at the Verma Committee end. If the government is really sincere, it should make the Verma Commission into a permanent statutory body that looks at the overall issue of improving gender justice even while being empowered to continuously monitor the actual impact of the changes in the law to ensure that they are working as intended, and not being misused.
The truth is the Verma committee’s job has just begun. Nor is the debate over gender justice over. And there is need for the Verma committee to look at its own omissions. For example, after bravely abandoning traditional ideas of "honour", "shame", etc, which prevent women from fully claiming their sexual autonomy or seeking redress for violations, the committee has almost nothing to say on legalising commercial sex work that some women may take up voluntarily. We will discuss this idea a bit more later.
This writer has three points to make on why the Verma committee's work is unfinished.
One, the Verma Committee was propelled by a self-selecting group of women activists and NGOs with special interests, and to that extent it is not representative. It has clearly not heard all its detractors, perhaps for want of time, or perhaps for want of powers to summon stakeholders for their views. Justice Verma himself said that the police hardly put in an appearance. He said it more by way of a complaint, but isn’t it the job of the committee to insist on hearing all stakeholders?
Having left it to the good intent of DGPs to come or not to come, the hearings were clearly one-sided.
The Verma committee also made strong remarks against khap panchayats, but how many representatives of khaps were heard for their side of the story? This is not to defend retrograde khap opinions, but to point out a simple issue: lack of natural justice.
Very few men’s groups seem to have been heard. The fact that there were a lot of young men aiding the committee does not mean dissenters were heard. The people who really need to be heard are those representing the other side of the argument. There is, for example, a men’s right group called Save Indian Family Foundation, which has been pointing out the inequities and misuse of the anti-dowry and domestic violence act against men. However patriarchal or male-oriented this group might be, the Verma committee should have called for its opinions. A permanent Verma Commission can make good this omission.
Two, the work of the committee cannot end with changes in the law. It must also monitor how the law is implemented, both in its use and abuse.
For example, the legal changes proposed by the government ordinance and the bulk of the Verma Committee own recommendations seek to shift the onus of proof to men from women. In our male-oriented society, women who faced rape or sexual assaults are presumed to have brought it on themselves. But now, the boot is on the other foot. Earlier, women had a tough time proving there was non-consensual sex; now it is up to men to prove that there was explicit consent for sex. Fair enough. But this is not going to be an easy thing to prove when it is the women who will be making the accusations and they are the only ones who can substantiate the man’s claim of consensual sex.
The problem is not the changes in the law, but how it will be implemented. The committee, thus, needs a long-term mandate to monitor its use and abuse. This is what all Indian laws lack – the ability to monitor them at work. In the case of the far-reaching recommendations of the Verma Committee, the work will have been in vain if we stop at changing the law itself.
Three, the committee went far beyond its brief to look at issues not directly related to rape laws alone. It went into police reforms, it went into the issue of trafficking in women, it looked at juvenile homes and how they are run.
But it missed out a very important element: commercial sex workers.
India needs to have a legalised and well-regulated commercial sex workers sector, both to prevent the exploitation and trafficking of women, and to serve as a safety valve for the millions of young people pouring into cities and towns in search of jobs and a future.
The committee either did not look at the issue at all, or possibly avoided looking at it, given the feminist views of the dominant groups who worked on the final report.
It is time we abandoned our moralistic attitude to commercial sex workers – both women and men, even though there may be more of the former. As long as women are drawn into sex work for commercial reasons and are not forced into it, they need to be provided a protected environment to practice their trade. This is why sex work needs a proper legal environment where they are not exploited by pimps and the police, even while being given proper healthcare.
This is Verma’s biggest omission.