The killing of four suspects arrested for the rape and murder of a Hyderabad vet in an alleged encounter early on Friday morning has led to outrage over the state police’s inability to ensure due process, but the majority sentiment has been laudatory with policemen who were part of the operation being showered with rose petals and ruling party MPs issuing statements to endorse the manner in which “instant justice” was meted out.
It is to address this kind of episodic anger that tends to legitimise extra-judicial killings in the face of delayed justice that a committee of senior judges was formed after the Nirbhaya gang rape in Delhi on December 16, 2012. The primary purpose of the committee, headed by former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, was to recommend changes to speed up delivery of justice and counter the embedded inefficiency of the state machinery while dealing with heinous crimes against women.
The committee, formed on December 23, 2012, with Justice Leila Seth and Gopal Subramaniam as members, acknowledged that it was set up in response to the nationwide public outcry against the failure of the state to provide a safe and dignified environment for women.
Yet, the Verma committee made it clear in its report that a death sentence was neither a deterrent nor the solution. Additionally, it looked at possible amendments to the criminal law to provide speedy trial and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assaults.
Ultimately, the committee’s recommendations dealt with a range of issues affecting the police and legal system that hinder speedy trial and the effective delivery of justice.
But to what extent have the recommendations been acted upon? Lawyers and activists say not much, pointing out that there has been little effort to ensure a “social and physical infrastructure to prevent crimes against women”, something the Centre and states had been advised to work on.
In an op-ed article in The Hindu on Thursday, CPI(M) leader and former Rajya Sabha MP Brinda Karat pointed out that six years after the report, the government had displayed an utter lack of will. “… Instead of implementing the necessary recommendations retrogressive approaches to women’s rights have become prominent where ministers and elected representatives openly side with the rape accused as in Kathua or Shahjahanpur,” she wrote.
“Stop peddling this as justice to women,” Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover posted on Facebook, criticising the Hyderabad “encounter”. In another post, she wrote that with “no investigation, no prosecution, these killings distract the public and save the police and state from any accountability.”
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, argued that the government has displayed utter contempt for the Verma committee recommendations.
“Even those who paid a lip service to it have done what they wanted to do while ignoring the actual recommendations. For instance, when rape laws were changed in 2013, the government of the day, the UPA, introduced death penalty in rape cases and raised the age of consent from 16 to 18 — which the Justice Verma committee had recommended against,” said Krishnan.
According to Krishnan, the current government in comparison merely played into the hands of lynch mobs. “Lynch mob killings,” she added, “were not justice.”
The following are the some of the recommendations of the Verma committee:
On death penalty
The committee made it clear that it wasn’t inclined to recommend death penalty. “Undoubtedly, rape deserves serious punishment. It is a highly reprehensible crime in the moral sense, and demonstrates a total contempt for the personal integrity and autonomy of the victim,” the report said while coming to its conclusion that punishment with death is not warranted.
It noted that although it would be regressive to introduce death penalty for rape, the committee suggested rigorous imprisonment from seven years to life. As punishment for causing death or leaving a victim in a “persistent vegetative state”, it suggested a harsher term of 20 years or life. A similar punishment for offences of gang rape was also recommended.
The committee blamed a patriarchal mindset that led to male police officers not taking complaints of rape seriously. “There is, naturally, a certain degree of institutional bias against women. Their complaints are not taken seriously by the police,” the report said.
The committee held such an officer who “fails to register a case” or “attempts to abort an investigation” as offenders and liable to a punishment.
On conducting a medical examination, the committee suggested that the medical findings should not conclude whether rape had occurred or not. It should just record medical findings. It also suggests ending the unscientific and degrading test to certain the laxity of vaginal muscles with fingers (commonly referred to as the “two-finger test”).
On protection of women from harassment and sexual offences, the committee felt, was dependent on the quality of policing. It also believed it was necessary to inculcate “Constitutional values” and “moral vision” in the police force.
The committee, in fact, had a long list of suggestions for reforming the police. It stressed on implementing the Supreme Court directives given in the Prakash Singh vs Union of India case to improve policing.
The apex court’s suggestions included forming a state security commission to ensure state governments did not have unwarranted influence on state police, a minimum tenure for directors general of police, inspectors general of police and other officers; setting up a separate unit for speedier investigation, a separate state police establishment boards to decide on transfers, postings and promotions and establishing a police complaints authority in districts to look into complaints against police officers.
The panel also said that “police officers with reputation of outstanding ability and character must be placed at the higher levels of the police force.”
The committee held that it was the judiciary’s primary responsibility to enforce fundamental rights through constitutional remedies. Referring to Delhi High Court taking up the issue of missing children suo motu, the committee wrote: “The judiciary can take suo motu cognizance of such issues being deeply concerned with them both in the Supreme Court and the High Court.”
“It is time for the judiciary to step in to discharge the constitutional mandate of enforcing fundamental rights and implementation of the rule of law,” it further recommended. It added that the Chief Justice of India could be approached to commence appropriate proceedings on the judicial side.
The Justice Verma committee said reforms were needed “to ensure true representation of people by elimination of those with criminal antecedents.” It was necessary to deal with criminalisation of politics to avoid conflicts in the discharge of legislative functions.
It suggested an amendment to Section 33A of the Representation of People Act-1951 that would require a prospective candidate to declare whether there was a case pending against him/her and whether cognisance had been taken of it. And if cognisance had been taken by a magistrate, the panel said, such candidates ought to be disqualified from participating in the electoral process.
It also said that to set a healthy precedent, all those in Parliament and state legislatures, who had any criminal cases pending against them in respect of heinous offences, should vacate their seats as a mark of respect to Parliament and the Constitution.