The Report submitted by the Justice Verma committee marks an important measure of victory for the ongoing people’s movement against sexual violence, as well as for the decades of the women’s movement and democratic movement in India.
The Report, commendably prepared within a month, following a welcome process of serious engagement with activists and scholars in the field, does several things that are undoubtedly path-breaking. It firmly upholds the principle that violence on women should be understood from the perspective of women’s autonomy, bodily integrity and dignity, rather from patriarchal notions of honour and shame. From that perspective, it recommends an overhaul, not only in the existing laws against sexual violence, but also in the systems of investigation, prosecution, and trial. It calls to make the state responsible for failure to protect women. It recommends punitive measures for non-registration of FIRs. It recommends that stalking, voyeurism, stripping, sexual harassment be recognized as crimes with appropriate punishment. It calls for harsher punishment for several forms of sexual violence. It recommends a graded system of punishment for a range of sexual crimes. It calls for the scrapping of the demeaning ‘two-finger test’, and spells out the protocol for medical examination and care of a rape survivor. It recognizes that the prevailing exemption of marital rape from the rape law amounts to legitimizing a notion of a wife as the property of the husband. It recommends that a police officer who allows custodial rape to take place under his command, be charged with breach of command responsibility, and punished with rigorous imprisonment between 7-10 years. And it holds that members of the armed forces charged with rape be tried in a civil court of law; recommends review of AFSPA; and calls for appointment of special commissioners for women’s safety and security in all conflict areas. It recognizes, at length, the need to protect the rights and dignity of sexual minorities, and to address sexual violence faced by them. It discusses the crimes that occur in the custody of the family, militating against women’s autonomy in matters of choice of partners. It calls for reforms to make the police accountable and ensure that the judicial process is made gender-sensitive and gender-just. It calls for more judges and more courts to ensure speedier trials. It maps out a Charter of Rights for women.
If the JVC Report does all of this, it is a real tribute to the ongoing movement which has successfully brought the question of women’s freedom, autonomy, and rights to centre stage. Why is the UPA Government silent on the Justice Verma recommendations? Why are most of the Opposition parties including the BJP, silent on these recommendations?
Many of the above recommendations need not wait for a session of Parliament to bring into force.
· For instance, the Government should waste no time at all in scrapping the two-finger test. Not a single woman should have to undergo this demeaning and misogynistic test ever again.
· The Government, acting on the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee, should immediately take steps to ensure the arrest of the rapists and killers of Thangjam Manorama, and the Chhattisgarh SP Ankit Garg, accused of supervising Soni Sori’s sexual torture, and bring them to trial.
· The Government should, well in advance of the budget session, prepare and make public an expenditure plan to realise the various infrastructural changes recommended by the JVR: including sufficient judges and courts; rape crisis centres; safe houses for women and children; sufficient agencies for forensic examination; safe public transport, and so on.
· And the Government should take forward the process initiated by the Justice Verma committee, and continue the process of consultation in order to draft the requisite laws for enactment at the earliest.
There are some areas, however, where the Justice Verma report disappoints and remains lacking. For instance, one serious omission is that failure to include sexual violence occurring in situations of communal violence, violence against SC/ST women, and massacres under the category of aggravated sexual assault. Suggestions made with regard to the sexual harassment Bill, especially in the context of Universities, have not been incorporated. Many other areas also call for closer reflection and critique, and there is a need for a more comprehensive look at the whole report.
But above all, there is a need to ensure that the Justice Verma Committee Report, a product of a unique juncture of people’s movement against sexual violence, is not consigned to the cold storage, like so many reports before it. It’s up to us to keep the movement going, and ensure that the Government and Parliament are forced to implement this Report.
On 26 January, people from all over Delhi are going to march in a Freedom Parade to reassert people’s claim to the Republic, and to demand Women’s Freedom and People’s Freedom. We will also demand immediate steps from the Government to implement the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee report, and take forward the process initiated by the Justice Verma committee towards formulating and enacting gender-just laws. Let’s keep the flame that was lit by the courageous fighter on December 16th, burning bright!