IF THE people of India needed tactile evidence that the ground beneath their feet has shifted on gender issues, then on 23 January, it arrived. Exactly one month after Justice JS Verma was asked by the government to look at the gaping holes in our criminal justice system to deal with rape, he delivered a 657-page report that is really a roadmap to dismantling patriarchy across all our institutions.
The report begins by signposting the misogyny in our law — in “outraging of modesty” and “honour” of a rape victim — and recommending that these be scrapped. It goes on to ask the framers of our law in Parliament to consider a contemporary definition of sexuality as their starting point. “A sexual field of multiple and fluid identities.” Crimes of sex must include those against the transgenders, homosexuals and lesbians.
Rape is re-defined as any form of non-consensual penetration. And possibly for the first time, marital rape is discussed at length as an essential part of the crime. The relationship of the victim with the perpetrator should be of no consequence, says the report. It also takes on board the views of activists like Irom Sharmila of Manipur, in recommending that people in the armed forces are not doing their duty when they rape women and should therefore not be immune from trial under the common law. Apart from rape, various forms of sexual assault — from sexual harassment at the workplace to groping, teasing and touching a woman or a child in ways they find inappropriate — need to be punished as serious offences.
There are entire chapters explaining how the police must conduct itself. The report suggests police officers should be put in jail for a year if they don’t register a rape case. Each layer of the horrors a victim currently faces is addressed squarely — the “two-finger test” being one. In fact, the report says what lawyers like Vrinda Grover have been asking for: that doctors cannot decide whether a victim has been raped or not. They can only examine her for bruises and treat those accordingly. The emphasis on the medical certificate as the “evidence” on which a case rests has got to go, the report firmly asserts.
Punishments should start with 10 years as the minimum, going up to the imposition of a life sentence. The consistently liberal view on gender rights goes across the report, which states clearly they are on the side of women’s groups in thinking of the death penalty and chemical castration as regressive and unnecessary. The question of lowering the age of juveniles from 18 to 16 would also be to absolve the State of its essential duty to turn homes for juveniles into the space they’re meant to be — correctional facilities where the mind of the juvenile is intensively worked on.
The report also asks for the missing pieces in our institutional framework to be put in place if any of the suggestions are to have meaning. Women’s cells need to be set up, police reforms are urgently needed and the government needs to open its eyes to all the provisions already sitting in various ministries from as far back as 1939. Since none of these are in place and women are victims of this abject apathy, the commission puts out a Bill of Rights for women.
Women’s rights activists like Suneeta Dhar of Jagori says this is definitely a paradigm shift. “It’s brilliant to have gone in there and to have finally been heard.”
For Mihira Sood, a lawyer who worked with the Justice Verma Committee, this shouldn’t even have had to be the outcome of the recent outrage. “All these issues are no longer radical. This, for us, is now common sense and its counter intuitive that this is not provided for.”
What is basic and essential to half of India is now finally on paper. But if the government’s reaction time is anything to go by, going forward from here won’t be easy. Justice Verma began his address to the press by saying that the government only sent in their suggestions on the last day. And the police commissioners didn’t send in any. The committee worked at a maddening pace, sifting through nearly 80,000 suggestions to present a report in 29 days. Only so these can be looked at by our MPs in time for the next Parliament session. Which is where Brinda Karat of the the CPM asked the obvious: “Whether the government has the will to implement these recommendations is the real question.”
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.