The justice Verma committee has submitted an absolutely excellent report in record time. Appointed by the government in the wake of the brutal gang rape of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student that ignited the nation, the committee has come out with a list of recommendations ranging from increasing the duration of life imprisonment to the “natural life” of the convict to introducing jail terms for crimes such as stalking. At the same time, in response to the saner voices that deposed before the committee, the report has ruled out death penalty and chemical castration as well as suggestions to reduce the juvenile age from 18 years to 16 years.
In an extremely important recommendation that echoes the sentiments of Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern states, the committee has categorically asked for a review of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and other related legislations to ensure that military personnel guilty of crimes against women are unable to take refuge of these laws to escape punitive action. And instead they should be tried under the criminal laws of the land.
But while most recommendations have been covered by the media, not sufficient mention has been made of the fact that the former chief justice of India spent a considerable part of the report castigating the government for not doing its duty to secure the citizens.
“Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law, and not for the want of needed legislation,” the committee observed. It pointed to any number of committees and recommendations from the past, pointing out that if indeed there “ was a felt need for more laws” implementation of such recommendations would have filled the requirement. It referred to several such reports including the 84th and 172nd reports of the Law Commission submitted in 1980 and 2000 respectively that have not been acted upon. “The ‘workmen’ must improve the ‘work culture’ instead of quarreling with the ‘tools’, the committee observed.
This raises the apprehension that the decision to appoint yet another committee could be little more than delaying tactics adopted by a panicky government that felt the pressure of the people after the brutal gang rape. Justice Verma in his opening remarks has expressed the fervent hope that the government will take the recommendations seriously, and move to implement them in letter and spirit.
Unfortunately, the urgency reflected in the appointment of the committee was not reflected within the government departments that failed to respond to the queries and information asked for by the committee. The response was “lukewarm” at best, and despite the rhetoric of concern by the Congress and government leadership, this had not translated into directions to all ministries and departments to cooperate with the committee on an urgent basis.
Significantly, the committee has singled out four politicians for their gross anti-women remarks after the rape had plunged Delhi and most cities into angry protest. CPI-M’s Anisur Rahman finds pride of place along with Asaram Bapu, Om Prakash Chautala and Sri Prakash Jaiswal. Of this, Chautala has been arrested for a crime other than his support for the khaps with the others remaining where they were, without even a proper retraction of their sexist remarks.
The committee has pointed towards the need for action against sexual harassment in its ‘milder forms’ as being essential to prevent it from degenerating into “its gravest form of rape”. And this as everyone knows is not done. Eve teasing, molestation, sexual harassment in all its forms, domestic violence, and even rape is not taken cognizance by those entrusted with the security and safety of women.
In some extremely relevant observations, Justice Verma has pointed out that the “Constitution is a pledge of state.” And that it is not just a document in isolation but that the state has the responsibility to administer the Constitution. In what amounts to a major indictment of the state, the committee has noted, as far as the rights of women are concerned, in our opinion, the state has failed to fulfill its tryst and pledge with the Constitution to create both atmospheric, climatic and ground conditions for their welfare and benefit.”
The government’s response is awaited. The next few days will demonstrate whether the decision to appoint the Justice Verma committee was yet another political gimmick or whether there are some leaders left in government who are interested in making a difference. It is too early to let the cynicism of experience pour out, so like the rest of the country we all are holding our breath and waiting, waiting for an adequate and comprehensive response to the report.
(The writer is a senior NewDelhi-based journalist)