By FLAVIA AGNES
The Justice Verma Committee has managed to silence its worst critics by producing a comprehensive and far reaching report which strikes at the very root of patriarchy. From its very modest initial mandate of suggesting changes in the current rape laws and examining the sentencing policies, the report has gone much further and has brought out a gender policy for the country, that too within a short span of 30 days, after eliciting response from 80,000 respondents. An amazing feat indeed!
But a broad gender policy, however ideal it might seem, is not law. And a law has no impact unless it is implemented and brings about the necessary results at the ground level. While we all agree that this report spells out a good omen for women of this country, yet there are many hurdles to cross before we can see some results. Hence we, as members of civil society, cannot afford to be complacent. The report has a message for each of us, for each segment of the democratic governance structures.
Describing the experience as humbling, Justice Verma salutes the youth for their commitment and accepts that there is much to learn from them and that they are the real hope of this country. For the young men who were conscious that the gender inequality has to be done away with, the Verma Committee has produced this road map for constructing a gender just nation. The task is not easy and the results cannot be instant. The message for the youth is —- it is not a question of instant justice and draconian punishments, merely addressing the end stage of rape is not enough. We have to address it from the initial stage itself and protect women from a range of sexual offences that take place in everyday life. The clear message that the Committee has given is that the gruesome gang rape would never have taken place if it was not mounted upon a range of sexual violence that takes place every day in our homes and on our streets. It is with this ideology that the committee has suggested that marital rape should be recognised as an offence. If a man cannot respect his own wife and subjects her to sexual aggression, he will not be able to respect a woman on the street.
But this is easier said and done. How will our legislators give their nod to this radical thought which hits at the very base of male prerogatives. The fear of women misusing the law will loom large on the horizon, even if a bill is drafted by the Law Ministry and cleared by the cabinet, which itself is a doubtful proposition. And how will the legislators legislate against themselves and rule that those who have been charged with sexual crimes should voluntarily resign or should be barred from the sacrosanct duty of legislating for the country? The budget session which is scheduled to start soon will reveal the answers.
This is also true for the suggestion that the special priviledges awarded to the armed forces should be done away with and all army personnel who commit sexual offences should be tried as per the laws of the country. Repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act has been a long standing demand of the people of the North East, Kashmir and other areas designated as “disturbed areas”. The Verma Committee has added its weight to this demand and has exerted additional pressure on the government. But when the safety and security of its women is pitted against the security of the nation and the morale of its army there is little doubt which way the government will sway.
At best the government will enact the Criminal Law Amendment Bill which is pending before the Parliament, by incorporating the changes suggested by the Committee. This will be easiest option for the government. But even this simple solution is not without its own problems. The Bill pending before the Parliament is premised upon “gender neutrality” both for the victim and the perpetrator which the Committee has clearly rejected. The Committee has maintained that rape is a gender specific crime and is committed not only though body parts but through patriarchal mindsets and hence it cannot be diluted. But the Committee has also recommended that sexual crimes committed on persons other than women i.e. transgender people, gay men, and vulnerable groups must also be made punishable. Although this will amount to backtracking, the government may accept this suggestions.
But there are several other recommendations which do not warrant a change in the existing legal order. The Committee attributes the cause of the Delhi gang rape case squarely upon lack of governance rather lack of adequate legal provisions. The Committee is of the opinion that much can be achieved with the existing laws even without introducing any radical reforms. According to the Committee, “the workmen should improve the work culture without complaining about the tools - hence mere additions to the statute book will not help.”
Thls forms the core foundation of the proposed reforms. How do we make the state administration and justice delivery mechanism more transparent and accountable? How do we bring in binding protocols and implementing and monitoring mechanisms? How do we redeem our police force from political influence? How do we bring into force the overdue police reforms? How do we bring in culpability? These are important questions for good governance. It is here that the government must shrug off its apathy and come out with clear answers. If brought in place, these measures will help to make a difference.
But the fact that important government functionaries did not participate in the process in a robust manner does not signal well. In the wake of the rising protests, the government constituted the committee and diffused the demand for a special Parliamentary session. The mandate was narrow and limited in scope but the Committee widened it to include all issues related to crime against women. Hence recommendations for issues such as trafficking of minors and compulsory registration of marriages are also included. On the other hand an important issue of compensation for rape victim is not clearly articulated. This has been a long standing demand of the women’s groups and has also been recommended by the Supreme Court. Rather than making the accused person responsible for payment of compensation, the responsibility for this must squarely lie with the state.
Barring a few such shortfalls, the Report is comprehensive and provides a clear direction for the reforms. The Committee has done its job well and given its verdict with a sense of urgency as a tribute to the victim of gang rape. It must now be seen whether there is the political will to enact the necessary laws.
A shorter version of this article was published as “‘Male’ Violence Nipped” in The Asian Age, 28 January 2013.
FLAVIA AGNES is a women’s rights lawyer. A pioneer of the women’s movement, she has worked consistently on issues of gender and law reforms. As co-founder of MAJLIS, a legal and cultural resource centre, her primary engagement has been to provide quality legal services to women and children.
She has played an important role in bringing women’s rights to the forefront within the legal system and in contextualizing issues of gender and identity. A prolific writer, she has provided incisive analysis of many social trends and legal reforms including domestic violence, minority law reforms, secularism and human rights. Significant among her many publications is her autobiographical book `My Story Our Story … Of Rebuilding Broken Lives’ which has been translated into several languages. Other publications included `Law & Gender Inequality – The Politics of Personal Laws in India’ and an Omnibus, ‘Women and Law’ (co-edit) both published by Oxford University Press