Report in, action awaited

The deafening silence from official circles on the Verma committee recommendations is in sharp contrast to the widespread well-deserved appreciation that the committee has received. It is common for governments to form such committees to buy time and take the heat off themselves. Perhaps that was the government's intention when it set up the committee at the height of the protests in the wake of the brutal gangrape in Delhi but did not provide even the minimum required infrastructural support to it. But the committee established its own framework, and has produced a report, which is as insightful as it is comprehensive.

In the wake of the brutal gangrape, there was a spontaneous demand from many young people for the death penalty for rape, reflecting the anger at 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 uncertainly 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 suggested some important steps, including punishment for public servants who destroy the case through shoddy investigation and follow-up.

But there are some significant gaps. For instance, the question of fast-track courts and a timebound procedure in cases of rape trials, suggested by many organisations as three months, has not been addressed. Although the committee has referred to retrograde sexist judgments reflecting the mindset of judges, there is no comment on the steps required to reform the judiciary. There is also an absence of review and recommendations on the rehabilitation of rape survivors. The committee has also left out caste and class dimensions of rape when perpetrators use their economic, social and political power to commit rape and should therefore get enhanced punishment. These are issues which specifically concern the most exploited sections of women who constitute a very large section of rape victims that need to be highlighted in the struggle for justice.

These omissions in an otherwise commendable report do not however absolve the government from addressing them and acting on the report.

The record of governments does not inspire confidence. India has been among the few countries with no specific laws and protocols against child sexual abuse. Following a widespread campaign in the early 1990s, an assurance was made on the floor of Parliament by the Narasimha Rao government. But it took 18 years before the legislation on child sexual abuse was adopted. Again, it took 15 years for the Supreme Court judgment given by a bench headed by Justice Verma on the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace to be translated into a bill still pending in the Rajya Sabha, but which, as the Verma committee points out, has clauses which are against the spirit of the judgment. During the UPA 1 regime, Parliament had discussed the need for a standalone 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 votebanks, not people. Since women, in this perception, do not constitute a votebank, 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 run deep among many of our parliamentarians, men or women. There are undoubtedly honourable exceptions, but Parliament has abandoned the eloquent defence and promotion of women's rights that marked the early decades of Independence. Not only is it unable to keep up with the assertion of women on freedom from patriarchal controls, but more worryingly it sometimes acts as an obstacle to women's advance, such as on the issue of the women's reservation bill.

But 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 the welcome, radical analysis of the Verma report on women's sexual autonomy, which it links with recommendations to prohibit the dictates of khap panchayats against self-choice partnerships, to recognise marital rape as a crime, and to support the rights of gay and transgender communities. It is equally important for public representatives to understand the committee's emphasis on changing social attitudes to women, including prevailing concepts of masculinity linked to aggressive misogynistic behaviour. Son-preferring 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's/ family's honour being defiled, thus further intensifying mental violence on her. It criticises and names political leaders 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.

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.

The writer is a member of the CPM politburo

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