Legal expert on how India strengthened laws against sexual violence following an infamous rape and murder in Delhi. Richa Sadana reports.
By Richa Sadana
The Indian government adopted a tough anti-rape law after the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old paramedic student in a Delhi bus, sending a strong message against the crime.
The gang rape in December 2012 and the widespread protests thereafter drove the Indian government to form a three-member committee to examine crimes against women in the country and find out the shortcomings in the legal system. Gopal Subramaniam, a former solicitor general of India and one of the committee members, recently spoke in New York about the process.
Subramaniam said that public outrage led to the adoption of the stringent laws on sexual violence. “From a point of view related to the women’s constituency, the demand for accountability for sexual violence was raised by all the sections of the society, leading to the most consolidated set of reforms against the sexual violence,” he said. “The protests were extraordinary.”
According to the National Crime Bureau of India, the nation’s official source of crime data, about 68,000 rape cases were reported from 2009 to 2011, but only about 16,000 – less than 27 percent – led to convictions (Read more.) The government data also point out a considerable increase in the reported rape cases in India (a rise of 17 percent between 2007 and 2011). (Read more, p. 81.)
Many civil society organizations have continuously highlighted the widespread prevalence of sexual violence in Indian society and have pointed out loopholes in the laws dealing with it. Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that fights sex trafficking, says that “between 1953 and 2011, the incidents of rape went up by 873 per cent.”
Apne Aap’s New York office was one of the hosts for Subramaniam’s talk. Renowned feminist Gloria Steinem introduced him to the audience.
The committee, known by the name of its chairman, Justice J.S. Verma, was created to come out with recommendations for amendments to the Criminal Law in order to ensure quicker trial and stringent punishment for those found guilty of sexual assault against women. The committee finalized its recommendations and submitted the report to the Indian government on Jan. 23.
Elucidating the Verma committee‘s approach toward writing the 630-page document, Subramaniam pointed out that there were three ways in which the report aimed to address crimes against women. First, the committee realized a strong need to constitutionally establish equality for women. Secondly, the committee, while forming the recommendations, kept in mind the stereotypes that exist in Indian patriarchal society, particularly in rural areas, about male aggression. Thirdly, the committee opted for stricter punishment for rape cases than 14 years imprisonment. It did not recommend the death penalty but opted for imprisonment for natural life.
Subramaniam highlighted that the most important aspect for change is to recognize the root cause of the crime in order to completely eliminate it. He said that it is extremely important to fight the negative connotations attached to rape cases and sensitize the people toward rape victims. This, he believes, can be done by portraying rape victims as heroes rather than victims.
Indian news media, not permitted to publish the names of rape victims, dubbed the young Delhi woman Nirbhaya, or Fearless One.
In order to prepare its report, the Verma committee urged the nation to come out with suggestions on how the new law should deal with cases of violence against women. It heard testimony from different groups of people including survivors of rape, sex trafficking and child abuse victims, police officers and women’s rights organizations. It received more than 70,000 recommendations from all over the nation regarding amendments to the existing laws.
Subramaniam said that, because of the urgent need for change, the Verma committee decided to release the report first to the news media before submitting it to the government, in order to build pressure on the authorities to take swift actions.
The committee’s final report came out with interesting recommendations like formation of a special rape crisis cell for legal assistance to the victims, online registration of the First Information Reports (FIRs), and training of police personnel on how to assist victims of sexual offenses. (Read more.)
Based largely on the Verma committee’s recommendations, parliament passed a new anti-rape law on March 21. The new law, which came into force on April 3, widened the definition of rape. It has clauses that encourage swift action in cases dealing with crimes against women. For example, the new law ensures free medical treatment for rape and acid attack victims. It also mandates a punishment of minimum seven years in prison, which may extend to life imprisonment and a heavy fine for any government official found guilty of rape. The new law mandates stringent punishment for rape and, for the first time, includes the death penalty in the list of possible punishments. (Read more.)
Under the new law, four men were convicted in September in the Delhi gang rape case and sentenced to death. A fifth suspect died in police custody. A sixth was tried separately as a juvenile and was sentenced to three years in juvenile detention. (Read more.)
The law also amends the Indian Evidence Act to allow a rape victim to record her statement before a judicial magistrate with the help of an interpreter or a special instructor.
Abhilasha Kumari, director of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, welcomed the new tough law against sex crimes in India and the role played by Justice Verma’s committee.“We have been fighting for the last 20 years,” she said. “Though there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, this legislation spearheaded by Justice Verma Committee has opened the window of hope for us.”