Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Justice Verma panel brings much needed sanity; but could have gone further….

There will be a thousand points of view on the Justice Verma panel’s recommendations to strengthen our laws against sexual assault of women. Not surprising considering there were thousands of suggestions given by thousands of people to the panel. In my view, the panel has done a good job overall, though on a few issues, it could have gone further….

The best thing is that the panel has managed to keep its wits about itself. It hasn’t pandered to the reckless demands of a newly awakened youth brigade and an opportunistic political class demanding death for all rape cases. Why should a rape elicit a death sentence at all? The death sentence is reserved for the most heinous of crimes. While rape is a very very ghastly crime, by asking for the death sentence, we are basically equating it with murder. A raped woman has not been murdered. A raped woman feels pathetic that her body has been invaded, but she doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) think that her life is over. In this context, the article written by Sohaila Abdulali, author of  the novel “Year of the Tiger” in The New York Times is worth reading “”. As she rightly points out, a rape is a personal horror, not even a societal one. And there is no loss of honor or virtue for the family when a woman is raped. She writes “It is horrible because you are violated, you are scared, someone else takes control of your body and hurts you in the most intimate way. It is not horrible because you lose your “virtue.It is not horrible because your father and your brother are dishonored.” People who demand the death penalty for rape are actually supporting such orthodox views. In doing so, they are actually harming the women’s cause.

Of course when there is a death involved post rape, the perpetrator should be considered for the death sentence (as per the homicide law). The crime then becomes a murder and whatever that entails should be given (Personally, I am against all forms of capital punishment, except in terrorism cases). But in other cases, Justice Verma has suggested correctly that the punishment terms should be made more strict. It has also smartly differentiated between one rape and repeated rapes, recommending that in case of serial rapes, the person may even be given the maximum sentence of life. This is a mature recommendation, again spurning the demands of the angry, but ill-informed, protesters who thronged Delhi’s streets that all rapes be treated alike. Even Ram Jethmalani had said the same thing on TV, but he was booed out by the anchor. Fortunately, Justice Verma has brought the requisite sanity.

Likewise in saying that our laws are quite alright, but the implementation is the problem, Justice Verma has said the right thing. We can have any number of laws, but if our investigative bodies are so ill equipped, and so poorly recruited (basis caste reservations and all), then nothing will change.

Where the panel could have done better is in changing the definition of a juvenile. By merely suggesting that the juvenile justice system be “strengthened”, it has missed an opportunity to take cognizance of a natural biological change that is taking place. Children are becoming mature faster; puberty occurs earlier today than ever before. Today’s 16-year old is physically as strong as an 18-year old, and at least for select crimes like rapes, he should be treated on par with adults. Justice Verma has instead backed the softer view that a 16-year old is not mentally developed enough and if he’s punished as an adult, he may not be able to learn from his mistakes. My point is that the 18 year old limit was set in a different era; it certainly needs to be revisited today.

The other subject on which the panel has lost an opportunity for reform is in not making rape gender neutral. Here I think the panel has kept an eye on the current mood of the public, and probably felt that making the crime gender neutral may go against it’s wishes. Because if it had been bolder, and fairer, it would have realized that rape of men is becoming increasingly common. It’s a new trend, and like all new trends, it has started first in the liberally outlying segments of our societal firmament – the world of films, theatre, modeling and the like. It is rumored that in Bollywood, the “casting” couch is now used more for men than women; “sleeping your way up” likewise. What is true in this small segment is bound to spread to others. The law that we make now should be good for the next 25-50 years; and there is no denying that when we demand gender equality in all other spheres, we should here too. A rape of any kind – and on anyone, male or female – is a terrible crime and should be treated equally.

Also Justice Verma should have favored chemical castration. It is not a “mutilation of the body”, nor is it a violation of the human rights, as he has said. Chemical castration is an effective medicinal tool to control the libido of a rapist, without even touching his body physically. It’s something that is practiced in several countries as well.

One last point. There was really no need for Justice Verma to attack the Home Secretary for praising the Delhi Police for the good work in arresting the five accused. It’s a fact that the police was prompt in this. We should learn to de-link issues. Justice Verma was right in blaming the cops for being insensitive; and attacking innocent protesters. But that does not mean that they didn’t do a good job in the arrests. As their formal boss, the Home Secretary praised the cops to improve their morale. They were being battered by everyone. It was almost as if they had done the rape themselves. Whatever we do, we cannot hold the cops responsible for what is basically a societal issue.

The real truth is that law making should always be done with a cool mind. Never in the heat of the moment. It was a good decision of the government to resist announcing new laws there and then at India Gate, even though the public would have liked that. For his part, Justice Verma has done a good job, as always….

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