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Justice J.S Verma Committee Report Groundbreaking Suggestions For Tackling Gender Violence

The conscience of a country like India was shaken up when the horrendous gang rape of a 23-year-old girl made headline in almost all national newspapers in mid-December in 2012.  TV channels went on bringing to light the thoughts and feelings of people across the country as well as the globe.  As is the case with all issues of serious dimension, everybody expressed the feeling that this incident of heinous crime against humanity would also soon be dismissed by people at the helm of important departments as one of the thousands of day-to-day incidents, not as a one-off incident which happened inside a bus while it was speeding along one of the national capital’s busiest roads.  The Government at first tried to hush up the matter by shutting down the heart of the Capital, with India Gate and its surrounding areas, the home of the powerful elite, being declared out of bounds.  But undeterred by everything, a large number of young men and women besides members of various student, social and political organizations kept taking out peace marches and staging silent sit-ins at Jantar Mantar and other parts of Delhi for days together and continued doing so even after the death of the hapless victim 13 days after the incident.  The Government had anticipated an aggressive public outburst and all senior police officers had been on alert as the news of her death had broken.

In response to public outcry over the brutal rape which later resulted in death, the Government had to set up a three-member panel, headed by the Former Chief Justice of India  Mr. J.S.Verma, with former Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh Ms. Leila Seth and former Solicitor General Mr. Gopal Subramaniam as the other members.  The Committee submitted its 630-page report, which took into account various aspects related to crime against women, on January 23, 2013, within a short period of 30 days of its inception.  Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was very thankful to the former Chief Justice Mr. Verma and the other two members of the Committee for completing their important task in such a short time and expressed his feelings in a personal letter to Mr. Verma.

The Committee, set up in response to the brutal gang rape which turned into murder, has, in fact, outlined recommendations on how to tackle gender violence in the largely patriarchal society.  How eager are the people to put an end to the atrocities on women can be gauged form the fact that the Committee received over 80,000 responses from the public as well as women’s rights groups, academics, gender experts and lawyers.   The committee put forward its report taking into account and weighing up all these responses.   The top 10 key recommendations put forward by the Verma Committee are as follows:

1.   Make voyeurism, stalking and intentional touching an offence
Make voyeurism an offence punishable by a maximum jail term of three years; make stalking an offence punishable by a maximum jail term of three years; International touching, using obscene language or gestures should be treated as a sexual assault and offence.

2.   Amend rape laws
Rape of a minor should carry a minimum jail term of 10 years; Gang rape should be defined in the Indian Penal Code and be punishable by at least 20 years’ imprisonment; Death caused by rape should carry a minimum penalty of 20 years in jail; Make marital rape a criminal offence.

3.   Review security laws in conflict zones
Due to the number of reports of sexual offences committed by the armed forces in India’s conflict areas such as Kashmir and the North East, the Armed Forced Special Powers Act (AFSPA)—a controversial law that gives sweeping powers to and often confers immunity on security forces—must be reviewed; Security forces must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law rather than under army law; Special commissioners for women’s security must be deployed in all areas of conflict.  Such commissioners will have powers to monitor and take action in all cases of sexual violence against women by armed personnel; Introduce “Breach of command responsibility”; making a senior officer of security forces or police liable to a jail term of at least seven years, if his/her subordinate commits rape.

4.   Monitor illegal, patriarchal village councils
Put in place measures to monitor illegal village councils known as “Khap Panchayats” that sanction so-called “honour killings” and impose oppressive diktats such as banning girls and women from using mobile phones, wearing Western clothes or venturing out unaccompanied.

5.   Review medical examination of rape victims
Put in place medico-legal guidelines on how to perform a medical examination of a victim of sexual assault; Scrap the so-called “two-finger’ test—an outdated practice that examines the laxity of the vagina to determine whether the victim is “habituated to sex”.

6.   Police reforms
Institute a Police Complaints Authority at district level to look into complaints against police officers who do not register complaints of gender crimes.  Policemen who fail to register complaints or abort an investigation should be punished.  This will provide more police accountability, said the commission; All police station should have CCTV to ensure proper procedures are being followed in handling, recording and filing complaints; Provide appropriate technical equipment and training to police to ensure the highest standards of investigation of forensic evidence for sexual assault crimes; Separate police investigating gender crimes from law, and order police to ensure speedier investigation, better expertise and improved rapport with the public; Increase the number of female police personnel on patrol and on duty in police stations so that women feel comfortable filing sexual assault complaints.

The Top 10 Key Recommendations put forward by the Verma Committee

1.      Make voyeurism, stalking and intentional touching an offence
2.      Amend rape laws
3.      Review security laws in conflict zones
4.      Monitor illegal, patriarchal village  councils
5.      Review medical examination of rape victims
6.      Police reforms
7.      Electoral reforms
8.      Gender sensitisation through education
9.      Bill of rights
10.  End to Human Trafficking

7.   Electoral reforms
Lawmakers who have been charged in a court of law with serious offences such as sexual offences or dowry crimes should be disqualified from contesting elections; Sitting parliamentarians with criminal cases against them, including those of rape and other types of sexual assault, should voluntarily vacate their seats; There should be a code of conduct for political parties, instituting transparency in receiving donations and declaring whether parties had sanctioned people to run for elections who have criminal records.

8.   Gender sensitization through education
The formal curriculum in Indian schools must be drastically revamped and sex education must be made an integral part of the curriculum.

9.   Bill of rights
India should institute a “Bill of Rights” for women, along the lines of similar bills in South Africa and New Zealand.
The bill would set out the rights guaranteed to women, which would include the right to life, security, bodily integrity, democratic and civil rights and equality.

10.  End to Human Trafficking
Define the offence of trafficking in the Indian Penal Code; Trafficking should be punishable with a jail term of no less than seven years and may extend to life imprisonment; Employing a trafficked person, should carry a jail term of no less than three years.
As far as the Government response to the Justice Verma Committee report is concerned, its initial gesture was quite encouraging.  Union Law Minister Mr. Ashwani Kumar said on January 23, 2013 itself that the Government would try to do its best to remove procedural inadequacies for speedy delivery of justice.  According to him, the Government expects comprehensive proposals and it would do whatever is deemed fit to improve the judicial process to achieve the objective of dealing firmly with crime against women.  The recommendations would be tabled before the Cabinet and later, Parliament for Constitutional amendments.  But he thinks that procedural inadequacies that lead to inordinate delays need to be addressed first.  When he was asked about the demand for reducing the juvenile age from 18 to 16 years, Mr. Kumar said that the issue required to be considered, given the changing social norms. 

Among the various responses to the report put forward by the Justice Verma Committee, mention should be made of what the former IPS officer turned-social activist, Ms. Kiran Bedi thinks.  She fully supports the recommendations made by the Committee.  She is in favour of amending the law related to sexual harassment that will end impunity for members of armed forces involved in cases like rape.  Calling the amendment “need of the hour”, Ms. Bedi told the media that if a man in uniform, be it a policeman or an army man, commits rape, he should face trial under civil law and not court martial.  Only then, they (men in uniform) would be protectors, not betrayers.  She, however, refused to comment on opposition from the Army for revoking Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).  It is pertinent to mention here that the Government has also indicated that it may not be able to implement the recommendations regarding AFSPA as well as disqualification of lawmakers.  On the other hand, National Commission for Minorities Chairman Mr. Wajahat Habibullah is of the view that AFSPA is against democracy and the Constitution, and its loopholes should be removed after discussions with the Army, if the law cannot be withdrawn from the troubled areas.

In an unprecedented manner, quite contrary to the popular perception, three weeks ahead of the Budget Session of Parliament, the Union Cabinet, at a special meeting on February 1, 2013, cleared an ordinance to ensure that those who commit crimes against women face far tougher sentences than those currently on the statue book.  The ordinance will become law once the President signs it, after which it will be promulgated.  However, the ordinance will have to be passed by Parliament within six months.

The new law is likely to include the death penalty—or imprisonment for the rest of the perpetrator’s natural life—in the rarest-of-rare cases, enhancing the seven-year sentence for those convicted of rape to 20 years, criminalizing public sexual harassment ranging from cat calls to groping, more stringent punishment in specific cases of stalking, and acid attacks.  The word “rape” has been replaced by the expression “sexual assault”.


Verma Committee
Gang rape
Minimum 20 yrs maximum life.
Death in “Rarest-of-rare” cases
Acid attack
Min 10 yrs and/or Rs. 10 lakh fine
Wants specific to women
Gender-neutrality maintained
Rape by person in public authority
Up to life in prison
Punishment for repeat offenders
Up to life in prison
Breach of command
Leader has criminal responsibility for subordinate’s sexual crime
Sex crime by Force in AFSPA area
No sanction should be needed

Within the Government there had been a debate on whether to issue an ordinance or wait for Parliament, and then send the pending anti-rape bill, incorporating the Verma committee recommendations, to a Standing Committee for a more detailed examination.  But, in the end, the Government decided otherwise as it wanted to send a message that it was committed not just to acting on its promise to strengthen the anti-rape law, but also to do it swiftly to demonstrate its sincerity in enhancing security for women.  The Cabinet meeting was preceded by a meeting of the congress Core group.  Hon’ble President Mr. Pranab Mukherjee also accorded his assent to the ordinance approved by the Cabinet, on February 3, 2013.  The Verma Committee did not recommend the death penalty even in the rarest-of-rare cases.  But though the Committee had wanted marital rape to be recognized as a crime, and had suggested that sexual crimes by members of the Armed Forces should be tried under ordinary criminal law (i.e., a review of the Armed Forces Special Power Act,) neither finds a place in the ordinance.

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