Panel to look into law change, PM says can understand anger

Faced with angry and violent street protests, the government late Sunday night announced a three-member committee of jurists to look into possible changes in law to ensure that punishment for sexual offences against women is made more severe and exemplary.

The government also responded to the continued protests near India Gate and Raisina Hill with an appeal by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which he acknowledged the "genuine and justified anger" at the rape of a 23-year-old girl in a moving bus last week, but asked the protesters to maintain peace and calm.

UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi held a meeting with a group of protesters earlier in the day, where her son Rahul Gandhi, Minister of State for Home R P N Singh and Congress spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury were present. The group presented a list of demands on the safety of women which, according to R P N Singh, were all acceptable to the government.

"We are all joined in our concern for the young woman who was the victim of a heinous crime in Delhi. There is genuine and justified anger and anguish at this ghastly incident," Manmohan Singh said in a short statement posted on his website late in the evening, adding that he felt "deeply sad" at events leading to clashes between protesters and police forces.

The Home Ministry issued a notification constituting a committee headed by J S Verma, a retired chief justice of India, to look into strengthening of laws relating to crimes against women.

"In the light of the recent incident, the government has given its anxious consideration to the need for reviewing the present laws as to provide for speedy justice and enhanced punishments in cases of aggravated sexual assault... It has been decided by the Union government to constitute a committee of eminent jurists to look into possible amendments in criminal law so as to provide quicker trial and enhanced punishments for criminals and (those) accused of sexual assault of extreme nature against women," a notification issued by the Home Ministry said.

Leela Seth, a retired chief justice of the Haryana High Court, and Gopal Subramaniam, former solicitor general of India, are the other two members of the committee, which has been asked to submit its report within 30 days.

The group which met Sonia Gandhi at her residence claimed that the UPA chairperson had assured them that all necessary steps would be taken to ensure speedy punishment to the culprits. This group of seven included students, a BPO employee and a restaurant manager, who refused to give their names. While talking to reporters, they claimed that Sonia agreed with them that "women feel unsafe" in Delhi. They had a 90-minute meeting with Gandhi, during which they put forward 14 suggestions on how the safety of women in Delhi can be improved and how justice could be provided to the gangape victim.

The suggestions put forward by the group include increase in police patrolling, a directory of habitual sexual offenders, deployment of police in plainclothes, visible presence of policemen, improvement in city lighting and trial of sexual offences in fast track courts.

The group said it was satisfied with the meeting but that the protests will continue peacefully.

According to R P N Singh, Rahul Gandhi told the group that the issue was emotive but it must not lose its rationality. "Decision making should happen in a rational manner and it cannot be driven merely by emotions," Rahul said, according to Singh.

Singh said the prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC were imposed just as a precautionary measure keeping in mind the security of the protesters. "I apologise to all those who were injured in police action today," he added. "We did not want police beating our own students. But the police action came as some lumpen elements indulged in violence. Anti-social elements were involved in the violence."

The minister added that 99 per cent students were protesting peacefully and just 1 per cent were indulging in violence.

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