Thursday, 24 January 2013

When Good Sense Seasons Justice - The Justice Verma Committee's Report

After weeks of hearing nothing but the most mediaeval claptrap emerging from the mouths of India's public figures, it was a pleasant shock to read page after page of sweet reason in the long-awaited report of the Justice JS Verma Committee. The report, modestly titled "Amendments to Criminal Law", can be thought of as the thinking man's (or woman's) reasoned response to the brutal gang rape in Delhi in December last year. I would recommend that people at least download the document and skim through it, because it's almost a mini-degree in liberal arts for the aspiring cultural sophisticate.

The references in this report to the Indian constitution reminded me of the mental model that I have of the Indian justice system, without which I find it an infuriatingly contradictory mess. When one understands the Indian system of law as comprising three different layers that represent three completely different world-views, the madness becomes partially understandable.

A simple explanation of India's legal schizophrenia (click to expand)

[Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, and can be faulted on several levels. Still, I believe it represents a fairly good working model that explains the often puzzling contradictions between the various voices that are heard in Indian forums.]

Justice (Retd) JS Verma, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, flanked by Justice (Retd) Leila Seth, former Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court and former Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium

I especially like the following aspects of the JS Verma Committee report:

1. It recognises the multi-faceted nature of the problem and does not come up with facile and simplistic solutions. It blames lacunae in the law, lax enforcement, an unsympathetic officialdom and a pervasive culture of patriarchy, and then follows them up with recommendations in all these areas.

2. It recognises the concept of "marital rape", which should come as a welcome cultural shock to Indian society.

3. It unwraps the national flag from around the armed forces, explicitly recommending that soldiers be held accountable for crimes against women in disturbed areas under the control of the military. Any criticism of the military has been considered unpatriotic, and armed forces personnel have operated with impunity for far too long under the protection of the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act). A similarly uncowed treatment of police misbehaviour occupies a full section.

4. It resists the pressure of the mob baying for blood by ruling out death and castration for rape. The maximum recommended sentence for rape is life imprisonment with no chance of parole. We are reminded that we are talking about justice here, not revenge or retribution. India cannot and must not be a Saudi Arabia.

5. It excoriates traditional "morality" with many examples, such as the misplaced notion of "honour" and the outrageous idea that rape victims ought to marry their offenders for the problem to be "solved". It also quotes from Sohaila Abdulali's famous autobiographical article on why rape is horrible (hint: it has nothing to do with the loss of "honour" or "virtue").

6. It highlights the need to recognise the rights of citizens with different gender identities and sexual orientations, such as gay and transgender people.

7. It guides Indian law towards greater compliance with UN resolutions and international treaties. No country is an island; there is a web of shared values that needs to tie human civilisation together. It demolishes the stereotypes of Indian women versus Western women that have characterised even some Supreme Court judgements.

8. It comprehensively addresses the issue of sexual harassment and has a number of recommendations not just for the government but also for independent tribunals and for employers of all kinds.

9. It does not neglect various other forms of violence and injustice, such as acid attacks, domestic violence, human trafficking (with very moving testimony from victims), dowry-related harassment, child sexual abuse, the notorious Khap Panchayats, etc.

10. It addresses the need to improve public safety for women and provide better amenities. It also lays out a very comprehensive code of practice for the medical and legal examination of sexual assault victims.

11. It doesn't shy away from raising the issue of electoral reforms, given that so many MPs have rape and molestation charges against them.

12. It talks about educational reform and social engineering to improve perceptions.

In short, this is an amazing document. In much the same way that Thomas Huxley was "Darwin's Bulldog", the Justice Verma Committee's report is the Indian constitution's bulldog. It can shock awake the conscience of those who read it.

Refreshingly, the report does not artificially curtail its content in the interests of conciseness. It is 630 pages long. It recognises that certain things need to be said, and that this is the most opportune time in Indian history to say them, a time that President Obama would call a "teachable moment". It is a comprehensive critique of everything that is wrong with Indian society and Indian systems where the treatment of women, children and the "different" are concerned. And it only took 30 days to produce!

Much has been made of India as a civilisation, and the scriptures that are deemed the spiritual foundation of that civilisation. But if India as a nation is ever to be thought of as truly civilised in the modern sense of the term, this document could well be the moral foundation on which such a civilised society is based.

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