A moment of triumph

Justice Verma deserves all praise for doing something we all were waiting for



The Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law headed by former Chief  Justice of Supreme Court,  Justice J.S.Verma is our moment of  triumph -- the triumph of women’s movements in this country.
The focus of the entire exercise is on protecting the right to dignity, autonomy and freedom of victims of sexual assault and rape — with comprehensive reforms suggested in electoral laws, policing, criminal laws and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, and the provision of safe spaces for women and children.
The recent gang rape and death of a young student in Delhi has raised the discussion on the question of sentencing and punishment yet again. The first set of questions had to do with the nature and quantum of punishment. Handling this issue with care, the Committee enhances the minimum sentence from 7 to 10 years, with imprisonment for life as the maximum. On the death penalty, the Committee has adopted an abolitionist position, in keeping with international standards of human rights, and rejected castration as an option. The second question had to do with the reduction of age in respect of juveniles. Despite the involvement of a juvenile in this incident, women’s groups and child rights groups were united in their view that the age must not be lowered, that the solution did not lie in locking them up young. Given the low rates of recidivism, the Committee does not recommend the lowering of the age, recommending instead, and comprehensive institutional reform in children’s institutions in terms of the definition of rape, the committee recommends retaining a redefined offence of “rape” within a larger section on “sexual assault” in order to retain the focus on women’s right to integrity, agency and bodily integrity. Rape is redefined as including all forms of non-consensual penetration of sexual nature (p.111). The offense of sexual assault would include all forms of non-consensual, non-penetrative touching of sexual nature
The Committee also said that in the proposed Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2012, the minimum sentence for punishment for rape should be enhanced to a minimum of 10 years (currently it is 7 years) with maximum punishment being life imprisonment. The Committee said castration would be unconstitutional and inconsistent with basic human rights treaties to expose any citizen without their consent to potentially dangerous medical side effects. On the issue of reducing the age of a juvenile from 18 to 16, Mr. Verma said: “Assuming that a person at the age of 16 is sent to life imprisonment, he would be released sometimes in the mid-30s. There is little assurance that the convict would emerge a reformed person.” The Committee has criticised lack of reformatory and rehabilitation policies in jails and juvenile homes.
Rights advocates in Kashmir, the States of the North-East, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and other areas that have witnessed protracted conflict and communal violence have for decades been demanding that sexual violence by the armed forces, police and paramilitary as well as by collective assault by private actors be brought within the meaning of aggravated sexual assault. The Committee takes this forward by recommending a concrete amendment to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to prevent it from being used as a shield to protect criminals in uniform. Significantly, it suggests the appointment of Special Commissioners in conflict zones to monitor women’s security
It is well documented how women face intense insecurity because of dominant caste hostility or communal violence. Further, because of the increasing number of cases of rape by powerful and politically connected men, women’s organisations had successfully ensured the inclusion of a clause in the official Bill of amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code introduced in Parliament. The clause reads that when rape is committed by a man “being in a position of economic, social or political dominance,” there should be enhanced punishment. But this does not find a place in the committee's recommendations.
There is an important demand made by rape survivors from economically and socially exploited sections for a comprehensive rehabilitation package. Some have rejected this as compensation for rape. In fact, it is virtually impossible for a rape survivor who belongs to the working class or the rural poor to bear the expenses of the legal process. It is not enough for the state to provide a lawyer. The question of loss of work, of sometimes having to shift residence, of frequent consultations with lawyers and visits to the court, incurring expenses and losing a day’s income are critical issues in the decision of whether or not to fight for justice. It is puzzling that the report does not mention a mandatory rehabilitation package or did not review the existing schemes of rehabilitation. The only mention is that the perpetrator should pay for the victim’s medical expenses. The victim might find that abhorrent and demeaning and, in any case, what if the accused proves that he has no funds? If the court wishes to fine the accused, there is a legal provision for that and hefty fines can and should be imposed. But it is the state which must take the responsibility for medical expenses and rehabilitation.
The super economic progress India has and is achieving is meaningless without a corresponding achievement in credible law and order. India seems to be regressing towards moral decrepitude as a consequence.
Justice Verma and his colleagues deserve to be complemented and thanked  
for producing a comprehensive report on a complex but fundamental issue  
in such a short time with little cooperation, as Justice Verma says, from those who asked for  
the report in the first place. All we can hope is that it will make some impression on those  
"painted and dented" persons in a position to do something about it. Time has come that  
constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights for all citizens meant something.
(Feroz Paray is Pass out Postgraduate Student of Management Studies and is currently doing traineeship at RTI Bemina)

Lastupdate on : Wed, 30 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Wed, 30 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Thu, 31 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST

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