February 04, 2013

The Verma Committee Report: yet another fruitless exercise?


In the years following the implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, my work involved training the police and judiciary on the new law as part of a UNIFEM funded project on violence against women. The trainings were focused on the various provisions of the law and the role of the police under the Act. Much of our interaction with the police revealed the obvious – the police suffered from as much gender bias and insensitivity to the needs of women as the general population. It also exposed a lack of manpower and freedom to discharge their duties. In my interaction with them it became clear that it was impossible to ensure effective implementation of a law by just imparting training to the police in laws. It required a systemic change of the police system as a whole. A situation where the police are overworked and underpaid, where they receive little appreciation and much of their time is spent pandering to political leaders’ wills does not make for an ideal environment for discharging their duties. The fact that they bear the brunt of the criticism directed at the ‘system’ is not a morale booster either. Further, they lack autonomy and their work is rarely free from political interference, something most officers in our consultations  complained of.

Unsurprisingly, the Justice Verma Committee (JVC), which was set  up in the aftermath of the brutal gangrape of a 23 year old medical student by the government to review existing criminal laws in relation to sexual violence, recommends police reform. The committee, which framed its recommendations within the framework of the Constitution, realised that amendments to the law have to be accompanied by greater transparency and autonomy in the police force. Police reform is an area of concern that resurfaced in most of my interactions with the police. The clash between the protesters and police in Delhi, and the subsequent death of a police constable, if anything, paved the way for a possibility of police reforms as articulated by the JVC Report.

But, media reports and press releases urging the President not to sign the ordinance on amendments to sexual assault law drafted by the government reveal that the government has failed to take into account most of the crucial recommendations. From information in the public domain, women activists suggest the ordinance which was signed by the President on 3 January, 2013 overlooks some of the crucial recommendations by the Committee. That the ordinance was not shared with civil society organisations or made available in the public domain for discussion makes the intentions of the government highly suspect. Some of the amendments proposed by the ordinance include making rape a gender neutral crime, not recognizing marital rape as a crime and the lack of mention of medical protocols to be followed in cases of sexual assault. Likewise, a husband raping a separated wife still deserves lesser punishment.  I suppose the logic is that since he’s had sexual intercourse with her before, her continued consent is irrelevant!

One of the biggest fears when the JVC was set up by the government was that the report should not be selectively implemented. In her piece in the Asian Age and UV, Flavia Agnes predicts that at the very least, the government may incorporate some of the recommendations of the JVC into the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2012 pending before the Parliament. However, the bigger challenge would be bringing about transparency and accountability in governance. Media reports and press releases by women’s organisations suggest that the government has failed to even incorporate some of the critical JVC recommendations.

Most women lawyers and activists are aware that enacting all recommendations would not ensure change in mindsets or implementation of the law. But to have laws that acknowledge women’s autonomy would be half the battle won. It would ensure that public discourse on implementation of the law and our rights would take centre stage. That the JVC Report would not be consigned to the status of another report which made landmark suggestions but never found its way into law. The JVC Report provides a direction that India’s legislators should take in drafting laws. We hope that it does not result in yet another futile attempt.

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