India is not short of laws; it is their proper implementation that is urgent. The J.S. Verma committee, formed after the Delhi gang rape of December 16, seems to have made this common sense point the core principle of its report. The report is also an illustration of the radical power of common sense. The committee has not succumbed to the widespread demand for revenge in the guise of justice. It has not recommended death or ‘chemical castration’ for convicted rapists. Its emphasis on stringency, instead, makes far better sense, especially since gradations in penalty have been envisioned. For example, in cases where death or a vegetative state is the result of rape, ‘life’ will not mean 14 years or less at the discretion of the prison review board but imprisonment until death. The reasons for each recommendation are lucidly given, as for example, in the refusal to lower the age of juvenile offenders. Correctional homes need correction, the panel feels; changing the age limit will not lessen criminality.
The law enforcement system has received almost as much attention as the offences. Accepting each complaint under a first information report is as important as the immediate medical testing of a survivor, as are the steps in the collection of forensic evidence. Not only has the panel specifically forbidden political interference during police work, but it has also extended this logic by recommending far stricter rules in the selection of candidates for political parties. No one with framed charges against them, the panel feels, should sit on any legislative body. This is in line with the Election Commission’s oft-repeated plea. The report provides a real boost to the criminal law (amendment) bill, 2012, taking its suggestions further, although it does not agree with the bill’s substitution of the word ‘rape’ by ‘sexual assault’. The specificity of the act should not be diluted, feels the panel, while marital rape should be recognized separately by the law, as should rapes of transgender or homosexual people. At the same time, the report particularizes other sexual crimes ranging from stalking and voyeurism to trafficking that should be treated with the stringency due to each.
What makes the report striking is the vision which spots and pulls out the close-woven threads making up a social fabric that allows sexual criminals to get away. Each thread has been followed to the end. So, one of its most radical recommendations seems almost inevitable — that armed force personnel should not be allowed to get away with sexual crimes under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Are politicians, legislators and administrators up to the challenge the report poses?