Engendering Dignity: Gender Justice, Criminal Law and the Verma Committee Report

February 21, 2013

The following is a press release of a panel discussion – on the Verma Committee and ordinance – held at Ambedkar University, Kashmere Gate, on Wednesday, Feb 13th.
– Editors

The public meeting on “Engendering Dignity: Gender Justice, Criminal Law and the Verma Committee Report” at Ambedkar University, Delhi, on Wednesday, February 13th generated some interesting facets and critiques of the Justice Verma Committee (JVC) report and the recently promulgated Criminal Law Ordinance 2013 on sexual assault. The panelists comprised of Vrinda Grover (advocate), Kavita Krishnan, activist (AIPWA), Muralidharan, activist (National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled) and Dr Rukmini Sen, AUD.

Contextualising the debate within the limitations and possibilities of the legal system, Grover said that Indian law “deals with sexual wrongs and not rights”. She further added, “there is a massive disjunct between discussions in court rooms and those in academic spaces. One does not hear words like “sexual autonomy” in our judgements- the court is usually about protecting “the good woman”. Grover stressed that the JVC report has a pre history to it – namely 30 years of work by the women’s movement in India. Offering a critique of the report, she pointed out that it was not a good idea for the committee to be making actual formulations of the law, “law is all about language and words. If you get it wrong, then everything is completely ruined”. She also pointed out that though caste and communal violence is mentioned in the report, it is conspicuously absent in the report’s law formulations. Discussing the ordinance, Grover stressed that the ordinance was a regurgitation of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2012 – “a bill which has never been publicly discussed,” she added. “The principles of power, accountability, and discrimination are missing in the ordinance. Prejudice is inherent in our system and has to be factored while drafting a law,” she said.

Talking about the immensely controversial AFSPA, she emphasised that the ordinance leaves it untouched. “It needs to be said loudly and clearly that AFSPA needs to be repealed. As per information procured through an RTI, the Ministry of Defence did not grant a single sanction of prosecution of any army personnel from 1989-2011. We know that the army’s internal mechanisms are not sufficient. Then why create parallel categories of citizens? Are we saying that raping women’s bodies is crucial for nation states to strengthen themselves?” Highlighting the ‘gender neutral’ clause within the ordinance as another problematic terrain, she said “this is like making a crime against women like every other crime. Law has to be gender sensitive and not gender neutral.”

Muralidharan talked about the JVC report and the ordinance from the perspective of the disabled. “For women with disabilities accessing justice is in itself an issue. It is also important to bear in mind that women with disabilities are not a homogenous group,” he said. He cited numerous examples of perpetrators getting away due to the inability of these women to identify their assailants. He stressed on the importance of sex education – a point that is mentioned in the JVC report but is absent in the ordinance. Disability groups have also asked for monitoring mechanisms which once again the ordinance gives a miss. “We had a favourable response from the Justice Verma committee,” he said but also pointed out that a lot of their suggestions found reflection in the ordinance as well – such as the provision that a disabled victim need not go to the police station to file an FIR or the special provisions for identification parades. “For us at these are not small achievements,” Muralidharan noted.

Both Kavita Krishnan and Dr Rukmini Sen delved at length on the responses to the Dec 16 th gang rape. Talking about the massive public outrage and the need to listen to the voices that are coming out of these spaces, Krishnan provided instances from the protests where the very notions of justice and freedom were getting redefined. “We want freedom much beyond the Indian constitution. The many excuses that are inbuilt into law must go. The ordinance has taken great care to preserve marital rape and AFSPA. Why is the state so interested in maintaining the special powers of the husband and the army? Is it because the state considers marriage as a permanent area of conflict?” she asked.

Dr Rukmini Sen talked about the spirit of the Verma committee and the death of that spirit in the ordinance. She pointed out that on Dec 24, 2012; a citizen collective against sexual assault released a statement opposing the death penalty. Yet, the death penalty finds place in the ordinance. She also provided a brief overview of some of the interesting posters that came out during the protests and the notions of autonomy and justice informing them. Sen also referred to the numerous precedents like the 172nd Law Commission (2000) that had called for broadened definitions of rape and women rights. “It is important to dismantle the Victorian, patriarchal and colonial notions that live through our laws and also to break away from the paradigm of honour to one of autonomy,” she concluded. A brief discussion followed where members of the Students Forum and Gender Issues Committee, AUD, raised some concerns and participants asked their queries.