The very exhaustive Justice Verma recommendations spanning 631 pages is commendable given the short time span in which this report was constituted and the lackadaisical government support. Even though the mandate given was to provide quicker trial and enhanced punishment for sexual offenders of extreme nature, it is heartening to note the comprehensive view taken by the committee to encompass all facets of harassment faced by women, children and other marginalized groups keeping in mind, the gender equality guaranteed through India’s constitution and its obligations under the international conventions. While the rape which acted as the trigger was an isolated incident, the fact that occurrences like these can only be viewed in totality keeping in mind the various interconnected social, political and environmental factors has been amply put forth in the various sections of the report.
What is very clear is that we suffer not due to the lack of laws but due to the faulty or often absent mechanism of implementation. The report cites the vast disconnect between equality and respect and the obligations of those who administer the law. And therefore, it is even more imperative that the State follows through on the steps right till the execution level and does not rest on its laurels for having just commissioned such a report.
The amendments to the Criminal Amendment Bill 2012 to widen the ambit of sexual assaults against women to include many more non-consensual acts against women including acid attacks, mutilation, stalking, voyeurism is a long awaited move. Marital rape inclusion which has long been considered an offence in other parts of the world is finally being brought into the purview. A special clause for rape followed by death or persistent vegetative state has also been introduced. Gang rapes have been brought under a separate category with much more severe punishments. The separate section accorded to ‘eve-teasing’ brings all the so called ‘minor’ offences also within the purview. However, considering the huge gap currently existing in reporting and delivering justice to much more severe assaults, these could still be relegated to the back burner. It might also prove onerous for the victim to prove offences such as eve-teasing, stalking and voyeurism.
Though death penalty as the punishment for rape, has not been accorded based on several international laws and human rights conventions, it has bridged the huge gap between a life term of 14 years and the death penalty by introducing a punishment of life term till death. A separate punishment structure for crimes and brutalities committed against children less than 12 years of age is missing and should have probably been brought within the scope of such a report.
Several of the committee’s recommendations like increasing the number and security in public transport vehicles, introduction of a public emergency response system, implementation of safe spaces and formation of Sexual assault crisis centers are very commendable and are implementable by a government serious about reducing crimes against women.
There are also very exhaustive recommendations for standard guidelines for medical and psychological examination of victims. It has also conclusively separated the issue of an occurrence of rape into a legal issue instead of a medical issue and also recommends doing away with the controversial “two-finger” test.
Crimes committed in Juvenile homes and incidents of child sexual abuse which have been unearthed by the committee during the making of this report are shocking and indicative of the extent to which this malaise currently exists. The report points to various lacunas currently existing in the implementation of the Juvenile homes and other destitute homes and it holds the State directly responsible for open flagration of rules as these incidents are clearly happening with the collusion of the respective administrative authorities. While reducing the age for convicting juvenile criminals has been rejected by the committee based on international child rights laws and neurological findings, exceptionally brutal / rarest of rare cases could have probably been accorded a separate status assuming that a juvenile criminal of extremely brutal tendencies has little hope of reform in any of the existing juvenile centers. Data to support whether juvenile criminals committing heinous crimes actually reform in their later years or are more likely to relapse into repeat offenders could have acted as an input to support such a decision.
A strong stand is also taken against Khap Panchayats and its kangaroo style functioning and the committee recommends a unequivocal approach by the government to curtail the Khap’s unlawful activities.
The committee further recommends increasing accountability of public servants by holding them punishable for not registering cases. This could aid in improving the reporting statistics, but the efficacy of this in situations wherein the victims belong to low socio-economic strata might prove daunting. The committee has also taken cognizance of the offences against women in border areas and conflict zones committed by armed forces or uniformed personnel. This has for the first time, criminalized the unlawful actions perpetrated by these security forces under the garb of maintaining law and order. Police reforms which are long pending based on a ruling by the Supreme Court 6 years back, were either completely ignored or not done as per the spirit of the ruling. The committee recommends augmentation of police force and inclusion of community policing.
It was heartening to note that the committee also brought in electoral reforms wherein it recommends the Election commission to bar candidates with charges punishable with imprisonment more than 5 years. The statistics collected by the committee across 7877 constituencies indicated that 31% of candidates of Electoral College are charged or convicted of a criminal offence. How can the electorate trust in proper implementation and enactment of laws for the safety of its citizens when those responsible for implementing such laws are themselves guilty of such heinous crimes ?
The report talks in detail about attitudinal changes required in society by quoting various texts, articles, past court sentences and advocates dissociating the stigma attached to rape. In this regard, it talks about education and perception reform through sex education and gender sensitization programs in schools. While this brings the educated classes into the purview of such an education, targeted campaigns need to be run for people of the lower socio-economic strata.
As citizens of a free and democratic country, we have the right to laws and an administration which protect us and which, as the report quotes, must override patriarchal, customary, traditional and religious provisions which have unequal outcomes. So, while the attitudinal changes might take time, the government of India is fully responsible for quicker enactment of such laws. The report’s fruition can only result from its quick implementation lest it be relegated to one more committee report that gathers dust till another Nirbhaya happens.
Image Courtsey: viewspaper.net