\Seven Sisters’ Post, January 25, 2013
At a time when are losing faith in the judiciary, the Verma Commission has done its bit to restore their credibility. The Commission has kept its promise of getting the report ready fast and got a more than 600 page report ready in 29 days. In so doing it has respected public opinion and has gone through the 80,000 representations made to it but it has not gone overboard by making populist recommendations or giving a politically correct report as many Commissions have done in the past. It has recommended strong action but has resisted pressure on death penalty for rape or lowering the age of juveniles. But it has not hesitated to make politically unpopular recommendations such as a review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which shields many security persons who commit this heinous crime and enjoy impunity. It has also challenged the political establishment by asking parties to look inwards and deal with rapists who get elected to the legislature.
One may not agree with all that the Commission says but one appreciates many of its positive points such as taking the definition of sexual abuse beyond rape to actions such as abuse through the social network tools that were not considered criminal or were not known when the law was enacted. It suggests that what is called “outraging the modesty of a woman” should be included in the broader and stricter definition. That suggestion is important because in many cases of abuse, the defence tries to show that it was not a physical assault so it is not serious. Also acid attacks were not known and the Commission suggests a new Act on it. It suggests inclusion of stalking as a serious offence and that human trafficking should be taken seriously especially when police personnel are involved in it.
Equally important is the suggestion that action should be taken against police personnel who do not register a complaint of rape or assault and the call for police reforms. No action can be taken if the police personnel remain insensitive to such crimes. Also the suggestion that the mode of appointing the Director General of Police should be reviewed is reasonable. One is aware of at least two former DGPs being convicted of rape or molestation much after their retirement and given only nominal punishment. Such persons should never have reached the top because if the top watchmen are corrupt who is to keep watch on them? In that light the suggestion about police reforms is meaningful.
The Commission faces squarely the issue of many persons being exempted from prosecution either by the law or by the culprits themselves. For example, the legislators do not seem to be accountable to the public whom they represent. Both the Congress and BJP persons on the panel said on NDTV on 23rd January that the Commission had made general statements about many rapists being elected. The Counsel of the Commission had to tell them that the Association for Democratic Reforms that keeps track of the elections has a list of 320 legislators who are accused or convicted of rape. In that light what the party representatives said looked irresponsible. Also the suggestion of the Commission that legislators who are accused of rape should resign or should not contest elections looks extremely weak. Will the political decision-makers take this suggestion seriously particularly if it becomes a prestige issue? For example, politicians in West Bengal and elsewhere brush aside accusations of rape as propaganda by the opposition. One is of the view that the recommendation that the Representation of People Act makes sense. But the Commission should have gone beyond pleading with such politicians to resign and made more concrete suggestions.
The same holds good for AFSPA. The Commission has gone beyond a plea to state that the security persons who are accused of rape should be judged under the same law that applies to civilians and that there should be special commissioner to deal with cases of sexual abuse in the conflict areas. They are reasonable suggestions but after realising that the AFSPA is at the root of many abuses the Commission only asks for a review of the Act without making concrete suggestions. That looks too weak given the number of cases of rapes in the conflict areas and the manner in which the culprits find shelter in this Act. The Reddy Commission had made concrete suggestions after the Manorama Devi case in Manipur but the Government is yet to act on it. One is told that a retired senior army official who joined the demonstrators in Delhi and many other defence officers opposed even the dilution of AFSPA though the Home Ministry wanted to reform it. So the plea for reform it looks too weak. There should have been more concrete suggestions for changing or repealing AFSPA.
One can find many more positive and negative points. The Commission has probably stuck to its mandate of suggesting legal reforms. In that sense it seems to have done justice to what it was asked to do and in a very short time. Thus what it has done is commendable. At this stage one should ask about the next step and that is a challenge of our society. A Commission of this type was required even before the atrocious crime that resulted in the uproar in Delhi. But the mandate of the Commission seems to be based on the assumption that legal action alone is adequate. For example, one agrees with the Commission that the khap panchayats are illegal. But they cannot be changed without public opinion against the system that supports them. Serious efforts at serious social reforms are required particularly when religious and political leaders tell the people that rapes and other abuses happen only in “westernised India” and not in rural Bharat.
A law alone cannot change society as one can see from the extremely low sex ratio among children below 10, obviously because of sex specific abortions or what is called piously “induced foetus miscarriage”. The 2001 census showed that sex determination tests and such abortions were happening in prosperous district despite a law against them. The 2011 census shows that the evil has spread to other areas. The value system of our society that considers the woman a burden is to blame for it. In that context the suggestion that all marriages should be registered and that the registrar should ensure that no dowry is involved in the marriage is reasonable. But who is to bell the cat? These laws will be implemented only if there is public pressure from our society. Now is the time for social reformers and thinkers to join hands and challenge our caste, class and gender values that lead to these evils. The Verma Commission Report can be their starting point.
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