As I write this column, I look around my newsroom, I stare at the multiple screens that surround me — tuned to all the news channels that satellite beaming will allow. And I notice that apart from the lone voice of Justice JS Verma berating the government for all that it should have but didn’t do, the voices that emerged after the Delhi gang rape are slowly getting muted. It’s not that the anger has dissipated, it’s not like anything has been resolved because the fast track trial has begun, but after all the smoke and fire, the protests and politics, it’s as if our lawmakers and bureaucrats have decided that they have done enough by ordering and getting Justice Verma to deliver the 656-page report in a month.
Maybe, I’m just cynical because I’ve seen so many law commission reports that don’t amount to anything. For instance, the 172nd Law Commission Report on the review of rape laws had recommended decriminalisation of homosexuality, redefined rape so that it wouldn’t be stacked up against the accused, and yet more than a decade later, we are still struggling for the same things to be changed. I know that activists are hailing Justice Verma’s report and celebrating, but my gut feeling is that this commission will just add to another pile of paper in a dusty corner of the government. I asked my colleague covering the home ministry, and it seems the report is already orphaned. I didn’t have to ask actually. On the day, the panel set up by the home ministry to suggest amendments to criminal law would release its recommendations, they had no one present at the Vigyan Bhawan. The home secretary could turn up at a police conference to pat the Delhi Police chief for his work during the gang rape protests, but when two 80-year old judges and their team of lawyers get together to present the promise of hope, nobody from the government has any time for them.
To me, it’s a flashback to the women’s reservation bill, which no political party has shown any real interest in passing, apart from some photo-ops and some token protests. Even here, all political signals point towards the inevitable that these recommended changes too will end up like that. After the gang rape, the opposition across the board found an issue to pin the Congress down with, particularly the BJP, even though it too stumbled often to find its balance on this. Remember Sushma Swaraj calling rape victims “zinda laash” (live corpses) and the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat using his now legendary Bharat-India analogy to diagnose the rape problem. The Congress, too, blundered along, with its top leadership mainly on mute. It was only in the Chintan Shivir that Sonia Gandhi said the gang rape victim’s death would “not go in vain” and the party for the first time, felt obligated to have a discussion on `Women’s Empowerment’.
It looked like things might actually work out this time, that the “anger of the youth” might move the slothful megalithic minds of mainstream political parties to make some real change. But what happened? From discussing women’s empowerment, they ended up talking only about Rahul’s added-empowerment. When reporters asked him about his views, he waffled about focusing on the positives. Home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, to whom the Justice Verma committee report was submitted, chose to kick up a saffron storm by linking the BJP and the RSS with terror. He made no comment on the report to strengthen laws to protect women. Neither did anyone else in either the government or the party. If anything, there was some criticism from senior Congressman Anil Shastri, that it was “unacceptable” that Justice Verma had not recommended the death penalty for rapists.
The BJP picked up Shinde’s saffron terror straw. Its new president eagerly said that if Shinde isn’t sacked then the BJP will hold up the Budget session of Parliament as well. So they think Shinde’s utterances are more significant to raise, than issues which affect half the population? No press conferences, no public statement from netas who otherwise line up quicker than OB vans to have their opinions heard.
To me, it appears that virtually no politician has even bothered to read, forget about understand, the details of the report. The indignation is pretty much on the fact that there is no hanging or castration — nice, populist things to create some noise about and both are missing.
This is another classic clash of ideas and ideals of a demanding new India that our netas are again failing to understand and will underestimate. The demand for change is real and here. It needs to be addressed. But if our politicians are still stuck in the old rut of assuming that some quick caste calculations and a few bogeys of religion and community will keep their election engines running, then there’s every chance that the death of a girl, who was so brutally gang raped that an entire nation revolted in revulsion, will go to waste.
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and is the author of the election travelogue Braking News
On Twitter: @sunetrac