A setback to women’s rights in India: Justice Verma is no more

Yesterday, when news that Justice Verma died of multiple organ failure hit, that was my first thought. An important force in reforming India to be safer for women is lost.

Many things have been written about the good judge’s contribution to improving the judiciary, his integrity, his courage in admitting his own earlier landmark judgments to be wrong. I am not worthy to write about those with my limited knowledge of law and even less knowledge of specific people in the judiciary. However, as a keen stakeholder in improving the conditions of women in India, I had developed a grudging admiration for the old man.

When news of his death came in, protests were raging in Delhi, the capital of India, politically, and for rapes. A young 5 year old girl was brutalized by two men in an alcoholic haze. raped, tortured, mutiliated, with a hair oil bottle and pieces of candle inserted into her, they had fled imagining her to be dead. The girl was to endure another 40 hours in that condition before she was found by neighbours. Further fury rages that the police had refused to file an FIR when her parents reported her to be missing.

It were similar protests in December after the Delhi gang rape of the young paramedic who was brutalized with an iron rod that had brought Justice Verma to the attention of a larger crowd than the legal circles. The government had formed a Judicial Committee to make recommendations for an anti-rape law.

I had only contempt for this judicial committee. To me it was abundantly clear that the government wanted their precious India Gate area vacated by angry protesters in time for the Republic Day parade. I had zero belief that the government intended to do anything useful with the initiative and it would be yet another red herring chase with people making major efforts to fix their world that would go into some spacious dustbin in a lush office. That the government had not even attempted to give a postal address for people to send suggestions to, in my eyes made it clear that this was basically a derailment targeted at the internet generation who were protesting relentlessly.

Indeed Justice Verma’s committee hadn’t been allocated a proper office and secretarial staff either, though an entire country had been asked to send them suggestions for an anti-rape law that they were supposed to process and organize into a useful form. To me, it was clear – the government had never intended those contributions to be taken seriously.

It was this situation that Justice Verma and his team transformed. He took on the challenge, and his team went through the suggestions they had received, organized them, had meetings with some individuals and organizations and within 26 days – 4 days short of the month of time allocated, a near miracle was presented to the people. The Justice Verma Committee report was presented to the country.

While I had my grudges with it (notably the absence of a clear rejection of child marriage, among other things), the report did cover a lot of ground and made a lot of recommendations and went above and beyond the call of duty (and its mandate) to produce a document the likes of which India has never seen before. For safeguarding women.

At that point, the situation was lost, really. The protests had mellowed. The energy was dispersed, as the government had intended. The committee according to the plan would have buried the issue 6 feet under. Instead, it brought it back center stage. The debate was rekindled. The scope the committee had taken on itself stepped on a lot of toes, but the collective impact of the report being ready on time (an unheard thing in itself) combined with it including most of the important suggestions on safeguarding women made it a force of India’s collective voice. A concrete weapon for the protesters to use in their struggle.

If an effective intervention is about power and precision of application of that power, the relentless protests provided the energy, but the diffuse focus took away from its power to create a clear, constructive change. Justice Verma Committee’s report was the lens that channeled that blaze of high emotional power and focused it like a laser to make concrete changes inevitable.

And, with much grumbling and grudging and subversion of much of the intent, a victory of sorts happened in the form of the anti-rape ordinance, then law. Certain important leaders of the UPA were absent on the day the law was passed, despite all protestations of wanting to create it. I have my reservations about how useful the law will be, since my belief is that the real issues lie in enforcement as well as prevention. At the same time, the precedent was revolutionary. For once, the demands of the people had forced the government to act in their interest whether they were interested or not.

But there are miles to go before we sleep. Many of the most important recommendations of Justice Verma Committee’s report remain to be realized. Marital rape continues to be legal. This was a start, the real road remains to be walked. The weight of Justice Verma’s voice will be a big loss as we forge ahead.

But having seen the rock solid leadership Justice Verma showed in the face of all odds, I have to admit, my first thought on his death was entirely selfish.

I thought: The war for women’s rights just got harder.

Thank you Justice Verma, for all you did. I hope we turn out to be worthy of the flag you’ve left to us.

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