New Delhi: Ignoring the demand for the inclusion of death penalty as a deterrent, a high-level committee has instead made out a case for guaranteeing implementation of existing laws, the decriminalizing of politics and increasing the number of judges to resolve the menace of rape.
It has also made out a case for inclusive urbanization that would ensure a strong community presence in the streets and thereby discourage anti-social elements; it rejected the demand to reduce the age of juveniles to be tried for rape crimes.
Addressing a press conference after submitting the report, committee chairman retired justice J.S. Verma said, “There was an overwhelming opinion against the death penalty, even women’s groups opposed this.”
Leila Seth and former solicitor general Gopal Subramaniam.
It examined a range of issues, including trafficking of women and children, sexual assault at workplaces, khap panchayats and honour killings, medico-legal examination of rape victims, police and electoral reforms, and amendments to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and to the Representation of People Act, 1951.
The committee was set up after a 23-year-old student was gang-raped in a moving bus in the Capital that triggered nationwide outrage and calls for tougher punishment for crimes against women. The student died in a Singapore hospital, where she was taken for treatment of injuries suffered in the attack, on 29 December.
Recommendations by the committee include formation of a constitutional authority for education and prevention of discrimination against women and children, every district magistrate to carry out a census of missing children, need to develop community policing, and encouraging street vending to make bus stops and footpaths safer for communities and pedestrians.
The committee has suggested several amendments to IPC, including the addition of a section on “grievous hurt through use of acid”.
The proposed criminal law amendments by the committee include expanding the definition of sexual assault to intentional touching of another person, where the act of touching is “sexual in nature” and awarding rigorous punishment that may be extended to five years.
The committee has also recommended revisiting the existing legal provisions on marital rape. “Consent (in the case of rape) will not be presumed in the event of an existing marital relationship between the complainant and the accused,” it said.
It has proposed the addition of new sections defining and punishing rape of an underage person, for causing death or a persistent vegetative state, and defining and punishing the offence of breach of command of responsibility.
Vrinda Grover, a lawyer and a human rights activist, welcomed the report. “It makes some very significant recommendations and it is a paradigm shift in locating the context of violence against women. It is being seen in a frame of equality and discrimination, and is written in a language of perspective of women,” she said.
Grover also added that the important recommendations from the panel include expanding the definition of rape so that it doesn’t consider the relationship between the complainant and the accused, dealing with the issue of marital rape and suggestions for handling cases of violence against women in conflict areas. The panel has called for a review of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in conflict areas, and the appointment of special commissioners with powers to redress complaints of sexual violence against women in such areas.
While experts and activists welcomed the report, they feared that the political class may not be willing to act on it.
“The committee has fulfilled the mandate of completing its work on time and the first step has been taken, but the real question is whether the government would be able to take it forward,” said Urvashi Butalia, publisher and activist.
“However, I also do not think that they would be able to ignore it altogether. They cannot just say that their work is over by publication of this report,” she added.
The Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance faced public outrage as protests erupted against the gang- rape in New Delhi and in support of demands to ensure the safety of women. The ruling party also faced flak over the handling of the protests, led mainly by the youth, when protesters clashed with the police near India Gate last month.
The committee, which described the clashes as those that “scarred the Indian democracy”, also called for clearing up the ambiguity over control of Delhi Police, which comes under the Union home ministry and not the Delhi state government.
Reuters also contributed to this story.