The J S Verma Committee, which was set up with commendable promptness by the Union government within a week of the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, is to be congratulated for doing a quick and thorough job. It has delivered a 657-page report in a month. Its remit was to look into how the country’s criminal law could be amended to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for those committing serious sexual assaults against women, but it has made wide-ranging recommendations. The report and its recommendations deserve the closest scrutiny and contemplation. If the right legislative and executive action follows quickly, India will go a long way towards ensuring that crimes so brazen and barbaric as the Delhi gang rape do not happen.
The committee has rendered valuable service by rejecting the demand for the death penalty, chemical castration and lowering the age for juvenile immunity for those found guilty of rape and inflicting death on victims. At the same time, it has sought to tighten and extend the provision for punishment to at least 20 years or life imprisonment. Considering the poor light in which the police emerge in connection with complaints of rape, the committee has made specific suggestions to ensure greater accountability. Every complaint of rape must be registered by the police, and civil society should perform its duty by reporting any case of rape that comes to its knowledge. Punitive action is recommended for any officer who fails to register a case or attempts to abort its investigation. The net has been extended to include voyeurism, stalking, marital rape, and proposals made to protect people with disabilities. A protocol for medical examination of victims has been drawn up. The report acknowledges the insensitivity of the police in dealing with rape victims and recommends that every police commissioner and director general of police be selected in accordance with the Supreme Court’s existing directives so that they can lead by example. In addition, all existing appointments should be reviewed to ensure this.
However, it is unfortunate that in making recommendations relating to electoral reform and supervision of action on missing children and the rights of children and women, the committee may have exceeded its brief in a way that could dilute its overall invaluable work. It is also unfortunate that the degree to which the judicial system has also failed in its duty is not examined with the same detail as are the two other branches of government. Speedy court trials to punish the guilty are as critical as police reform because the context in which laws and police personnel operate is equally important. This is borne out by the committee’s observation right at the beginning of making its specific recommendations that if the existing laws were faithfully and efficiently implemented by credible law enforcement authorities, they would be sufficient.