The stop-gap fix on women safety

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Justice JS Verma speaks during a press conference after submitting his committee’s report to the government in New Delhi on Wednesday. The committee was set up to recommend measures to improve laws dealing with sexual offences. Committee member Justice Leela Seth is also seen. PTI Photo

And, it comes to pass. The President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, signed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Ordinance 2013, after it was cleared by the Cabinet on Friday. The aim is to punish those who commit sexual violence against women. The Ordinance was based primarily on the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee.

Most women’s groups are up in arms at the Ordinance, which they believe has blunted the teeth of the Verma Committee recommendations. As Kavitha Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) states, the problems with the ordinance are:

1) Gender neutrality retained, which means that a man can accuse a woman of rape

2) Criminalisation of consensual sexual activity between 16-18 years retained

3) Marital rape not exemption retained – they actually shamelessly admit that ‘marital non-consensual sexual intercourse’ was criminalised by Verma but they will not! So ‘non-consensual’ is not rape as long as it’s within marriage – and by extension the lower punishment for rape of separated wife is retained.

4) Command responsibility rejected

5) Verma’s rejection of requirement of sanction in case of judge/magistrate/public servant and army officer (the latter thru amendment in AFSPA) has not been accepted

UPA 2 has faced two major public protests in the last four years. The first was the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare that became a lightning rod for disenchanted citizens. There was a demand for a Jan Lok Pal Bill that, the protesters believed, would solve all issues of corruption. The Government promised a Jan Lok Pal, but could not deliver. The second major protest was after the brutal Delhi Gang rape case. The UPA’s first reaction to the protesters was to water canon them, but then, seeing the unabated fury of people, it did promise stronger legislation aimed at curtailing violence against women, and stronger punishment for those who commit these acts of violence. With the budget session of Parliament likely to be stormy, if parliamentarians turn up to work, and elections around the corner – the Government decided to follow what was called the Politician’s Logic by one of the most famous civil servants, albeit fictional, in history, Sir Humphrey Appleby ( Yes Prime Minister)

“We must do something.

This is something.

Therefore we must do it.”

While women’s organizations are up in arms, the general message that is going out is that Government has heard the people’s anger and responded to it. First by setting up the committee, and the second by not waiting for Parliament to reconvene, passing an ordinance that will lead to better safety and security for women.

The ordinance has been passed in record time – less than 10 days after the Justice Verma Committee presented its recommendations. It seems to be the Government’s way of telling some very angry women, across the country and across the political spectrum – look we have done something. But, this something seems to be more out of short term electoral compulsions than long term systemic change. Sir Humphrey Appleby has the apt description once again “”To watch a Cabinet Minister in action is to watch the endless subordination of important long-term issues to the demands of urgent trivia.” In this case, replace the Cabinet Minister with the Cabinet – and the ordinance will make sense. Laws cannot be made to assuage public opinion. They have to be passed to make a tangible difference to society.

As per the Constitution, the President can promulgate an ordinance when the Parliament is in recess, but the ordinance itself has to be laid before the houses of Parliament and debated and passed, or it will lapse. But, come before Parliament it must. There is no point outraging on the Ordinance – it is in any case a stopgap measure. The thing to do is to ensure that the agenda is not diverted. That Members of Parliament are lobbied to do the right thing. That rape of any form, within the house or outside it; by a stranger or by a family member; by a friend or a lover; by a husband or a boyfriend; by a man in uniform or a politician is taken to be what it is – a crime. A crime that is punished severely.

But, this needs to be more than the debate on just what constitutes a crime and what is the quantum of punishment. While we may all want more severe punishments for the guilty, what would also help is a road map that puts into place the collection and collation of evidence, the use of science in crimes like this, training personnel to deal with these, and the building of system that deal with rape, sexual assault and the aftermath. Furthermore, there needs to be debate on systemic reform. On the police and judicial reforms that have been called for by Justice Verma committee. On the curtailing of powers of social groups like the khaps, of dealing with issues like sex education, and the issues posed by political parties choosing men accused of sexual assault or rape to fight elections on their behalf. These may not all happen at the same time, but there needs to be a plan that ensures that this comes to pass.

The ordinance is short term. The fight for laws that ensure better safety and security for women, a better system of policing for communities, and a better criminal justice system for all – is the big one. There is still time to get the law that is more effective.