(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 3, 2013
Act Now on the Verma Committee Recommendations
THE Justice Verma Committee through its wide ranging and insightful report has provided an opportunity for the government to initiate a series of reforms in the legal, social and educational fields on the issues of sexual violence against women. An action taken report on the suggestions should be placed in the forthcoming session of parliament. However the deafening silence from official circles on the contents of the report are an indication that the intention of the government in setting up the committee was to buy time and take the heat off in the wake of the nationwide protests following the horrific Delhi gang rape case. It is now known that the government, churlishly, did not even provide the necessary infrastructure to help the committee in its work. But in the event, the committee set up its own framework and completed the work within one month.
Through the over 600 pages of the report, with the marshalling of irrefutable evidence, what emerges is a strong indictment of governments at the centre and the states for their criminal callousness in ignoring the earlier recommendations of measures to prevent sexual violence against women. In section after section, the committee quotes from reports from 1980 onwards of Law Commissions, of earlier judgements and directions of the Supreme Court, of earlier notifications and circulars of the home ministry, which have never been implemented. It blasts governments for lack of accountability of public servants stressing the importance of making dereliction of duty a punishable offence. In the context of the refusal of the central government to act against Delhi’s top police officials including the police commissioner, the committee’s proposal is particularly relevant.
It also proposes to include the concept of command responsibility in the law, holding superior officers responsible for the acts of their juniors when the circumstances show that the crime could have been prevented had the superior acted. In fact, the Parliamentary Select Committee headed by the present union law minister set up several years ago to examine the flawed official Bill against torture discussed this issue in detail and recommended the inclusion of command responsibility. But the committee’s recommendations have been in cold storage. Similarly, the Parliamentary Committee on Women’s Empowerment had made a strong recommendation to bring the armed forces and the para military forces under the purview of criminal law, but the aggressive opposition of defence service chiefs was the convenient reason that it was not accepted. The Verma committee takes this forward by its concrete amendment to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to prevent it from being used as a shield to protect the criminals in uniform and also significantly it suggests the appointment of special commissioners in all conflict zones to monitor women’s security. It is well known how women, like the adivasi teacher Soni Sori, tortured and languishing in Chattisgarh’s jails, become the targets, caught between militants and the security forces. The recommendations on the culpability of the State on a range of issues pinpointed in the report are most welcome.
In the wake of the brutal gang rape there was a spontaneous demand from many young people for the death penalty for rape reflecting the anger against the savagery of the crime against the young woman. The committee considered this demand but has made out a welcome and reasoned argument as to why it would be counterproductive. In fact, it is the low rates of conviction, in other words the uncertainty of punishment and the confidence in no punishment, that subverts the processes of justice. For example in 2011, in 74 per cent of cases the rapists walked free. The committee has made some important recommendations on the procedures to ensure better investigation and follow up. It has also suggested enhancement of the sentences in rape cases including life sentence without remission in cases of rape and grievous injuries. Justice Verma has further clarified that in a brutal case of rape and murder, where Sec 302 is proved, then the rarest of rare category for death penalty could be used. The committee itself indicates that it is for the abolition of the death penalty per se, though it has not made any such concrete recommendation.
The report locates violence against women and children in a broader framework of violation of constitutional guarantees demolishing self-serving arguments that governments cannot be held responsible for individual acts of violence. At a time when market based ideologies so close to the hearts and minds of those in power promote the retreat of the government from its fundamental social responsibilities, the report reminds governments of their primary responsibility in ensuring through preventive and deterrent measures a secure environment for its citizens. The report says, ‘The failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law...” Indeed the direction of governance in the last decade or so has been dominated by a promotion of corporate led growth, the “unleashing of animal spirits in the economy” with no concern of its impact on increasing social inequalities and subverting the constitutional and fundamental rights of the Indian people.
CLASS & CASTE
DIMENSIONS OF VIOLENCE
The statistics of increasing violence against women tell their own story. In 2011 alone, there were 24,206 registered cases of rape of which 2579 were registered in the 89 listed cities. There were as many as 51,538 cases of sexual harassment of which around 25 per cent took place in the cities. Thus a majority of rape and sexual harassment victims are from the rural and mofussil areas, of whom a substantial number are of the poorer sections of women and children who live and work in insecure environments. All the child rape cases in Haryana for example in the last few months, occurred because there was no crèche or safe place where the working mother could leave the child.
The changing nature of labour contracts, from permanent workers to casual or contract daily workers, makes women workers, particularly migrant women workers vulnerable to the exploitation of employers, landlords, contractors and supervisors. Privatisation of essential services has resulted in lack of accountability in public transport, of no electricity, of absence of public toilets, all of which are directly related to government policies creating insecurity for women. The report comments, “We believe that fundamental rights must not be ignored by the State on a specious argument of paucity of resources when the rich continue to thrive and the wasteful expenditure of public monies is more then evident.” The report also mentions critical issues such as food security and malnutrition. These are welcome as they do take into account the experience of millions of poor women across the country who face daily sexual harassment arising out of their economic conditions which are worsening by the day.
It is therefore inexplicable why the committee recommendations for amendments in the criminal laws omit a crucial one which women’s organisations had got successfully included in the official Bill in the section on aggravated sexual assault which includes rape committed by a person “being in a position of economic, social or political dominance” with a higher sentence. While the committee has commented that the caste system and poverty add to the crime of rape against these sections, it has omitted the long pending demand to consider crimes on the basis of caste against dalit and adivasi women or against women on the basis of communal considerations as crimes which will invite an enhanced punishment. It is well documented how women face intense insecurity because of dominant caste hostility or communal violence. Such crimes should be put in a special category and considered as aggravated sexual assault.
NO REHAB RELATED
In this context there is an important demand made by rape survivors from economically and socially exploited sections for a comprehensive rehabilitation package. Some have mocked this as compensation for rape. In fact, it is virtually impossible for a working class or rural working poor woman rape survivor or if her child has been the victim, to bear the expenses of the legal process. It is not enough for the State to provide a lawyer. The question of loss of work, of sometimes having to shift residence, of frequent consultations with lawyers and trips to the court, incurring expenses and losing a day’s income are critical issues in the decision of whether or not to fight for justice or just give up. It is puzzling why the report should not have any mention of a mandatory rehabilitation package. The only mention is that the perpetrator should pay for her medical expenses. The victim might find that abhorrent and demeaning, and in any case what if the accused proves he has no funds? If the court wishes to fine the accused there is a legal provision for that and hefty fines can and should be imposed. But it is the State which must take the responsibility for medical expenses and rehabilitation.
One of the most widely supported demands of the nationwide protests was for time bound procedures in cases of rape. Today a rape victim including a child victim may have to wait even ten years or more for the judgement. The report recognises the large number of pending cases with the courts and calls for an end to frequent adjournments in rape cases. It suggests as a way out the recruitment of retired judges, of extending the age of retirement of judges at the lower levels and so on. But disappointingly, there is no concrete recommendation regarding a time bound procedure for cases of rape or of the setting up of fast track courts. The three months time frame suggested by a large number of organisations could have been accepted, as lengthy judicial procedures lead to gross injustice to rape victims.
But these omissions do not absolve the government from addressing them nor from acting with urgency.
The record of governments does not inspire confidence. India has been among the few countries, which had no specific laws and protocols against child sexual abuse. Following a widespread campaign in the early nineties, an assurance was made on the floor of parliament by the Narsimha Rao government, but it took eighteen years before the legislation on child sexual abuse was adopted. Again, it took fifteen years for the Supreme Court judgement given by a bench headed by Justice Verma on Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace to be translated into a Bill which is still pending in the Rajya Sabha but which, as the Verma Committee rightly points out, has clauses which are against the spirit of the judgement. During the UPA- 1 regime, parliament had discussed the need for a stand-alone law against so-called honour crimes. Unfortunately, even though women’s organisations like AIDWA have given a draft Bill to the government, no action has been taken.
The lack of political will on important women’s issues is also reflective of a dominant brand of politics which only sees vote banks, not people. Since women, in this perception, do not constitute a vote bank, their issues can be safely neglected, in contrast to considerations based on a narrow reading of caste and community. This gets reflected in parliamentary priorities too.
There is an ideological aspect also. Orthodoxy and conservatism on gender issues runs deep among many of our parliamentarians, men or women. There are undoubtedly honourable exceptions, but India’s parliament has abandoned the eloquent defence and promotion of women’s rights that marked the early decades of India’s Independence. Not only is India’s parliament unable to keep up with the assertion of women for independence and freedom from patriarchal controls, more worrying, it sometimes acts as a block to women’s advance such as on the issue of the Women’s Reservation Bill.
ROLE OF ELECTED
The committee’s suggestion, driven no doubt by a sense of urgency, to push its recommendations through the ordinance route, will not work. It is parliament with all its weaknesses, which will have to debate and finally adopt the amendments suggested in the report. It is the responsibility of the ruling alliance to take forward these reform agendas in parliament including on the welcome, radical analysis of the Verma report on women’s sexual autonomy, which it links with recommendations to prohibit dictates of khap panchayats against self choice partnerships, to recognition of marital rape as a crime and to support the rights of gay and transgender communities. Equally important is for public representatives to understand the committee's emphasis to change social attitudes to women including prevailing concepts of masculinity linked to aggressive misogynistic behaviour. Son preference cultures which dominate the upbringing of children need to be challenged and changed by the inclusion of relevant curricula in schools and colleges.
The report also makes a scathing indictment of the hypocritical stance of blaming the victim and pushing her into a shame/ honour trap - the victim's shame and her community/family honor being defiled, thus further intensifying mental and psychological violence on her. It criticises and names political leaders from across the spectrum who have made sexist and demeaning comments. This section of the report at least should be compulsory reading for all elected representatives.
In this context, there is a recommendation from the Committee to amend the Peoples Representative Act to disqualify an accused in a case of sexual violence from contesting elections, once the magistrate takes cognizance of the charge sheet. The CPI(M) has opposed the disqualification merely on the basis of charge sheets, because it could and has been used by ruling parties and economically and socially dominant forces to put false charges of rape against a political opponent to disqualify him from the contest. In the light of the Verma Committee report, the issue can be further discussed.
Today the only lobbies to be seen in the corridors of power are the corporate lobbies. The voices on the street are heard but faintly by those in high office. The nationwide protests showed the potential to change this. Justice Verma and his equally eminent colleague, Justice Leila Seth and former Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium have given the country an instrument to take that struggle forward. The country must force a reluctant government to act.