India rape panel calls for drastic reforms

Political corruption blamed for breakdown in law and order

The Washington Post

The judicial panel set up in the wake of national protests following the gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi submitted its report Wednesday, castigating politicians, police and the army for failing to protect women and children and calling for far-reaching changes in the way India is governed.

The three-member panel was established to assuage national outrage over the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student last month, but did not bow to public pressure to propose the death penalty for rapists or lower the age for trying young offenders.

Instead, the panel’s 200-page report slammed decades of apathy and criminal behavior in the way the country has been governed and said the nationwide protests following the gang rape were “a call to India to change the way in which women are treated.” It also laid bare a deep disconnect between India’s young people and its government.

“Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law and not the want of knee-jerk legislation,” the panel’s head, Justice J.S. Verma, told a news conference, blaming the police and government for “total apathy” toward the safety of their citizens.

A call for the public to send suggestions to the committee generated nearly 80,000 responses, Verma said, showing the extent of anguish over the dangers faced by India’s women on a daily basis. Yet hardly any of the country’s police chiefs bothered to respond to requests for their own views on ways to reduce gender-based violence, something Verma called “laughable.”

“If they considered this (commission) to be irrelevant, that shows the sense of responsibility they have toward the discharge of their statutory and constitutional duty,” he told the CNN-IBN television channel.

Verma praised the young people who protested peacefully to demand change, saying they had taught the older generation a lesson, but he criticized the authorities for their complacent response to the brutal Dec. 16 attack in New Delhi, singling out Home Secretary R.K. Singh. The young woman died two weeks later.

“I was shocked when I saw that soon after that incident, the police commissioner of Delhi was given a pat on the back by no less a person than the home secretary,” Verma said.

Not only do the police frequently fail to report or investigate rapes, but officers are sometimes involved in child trafficking themselves, Verma said. Although the police establishment has been aware of the problem for years, nothing has been done to address it, he said, calling for urgent reforms in policing and stiffer penalties for child trafficking.

He also urged the government to shake off its “apathy” toward the growing problem of missing children, abducted in growing numbers from India’s streets for forced labor or sexual exploitation.

The committee recommended that marital rape be criminalized and that India’s outdated rape laws be overhauled so that sexual assault falling short of penetration would be subject to much stiffer penalties. The committee also recommended that the law be changed to make the sexual assault of homosexuals a crime.

Verma blamed political corruption for the breakdown in law and order and said politicians facing criminal charges should resign from Parliament, a suggestion that could affect scores of lawmakers. “When people committing crimes are framing laws . . . well, I don’t need to complete that sentence,” he said.

But Verma also criticized India’s army over accusations that soldiers have raped civilians in insurgency-hit border areas, from Kashmir to Manipur. The commission said a controversial law that grants soldiers virtual impunity from prosecution in conflict zones should be reviewed immediately and accusations of sexual assault by soldiers be dealt with under civilian law.

“The brutality of the armed forces in border areas leads to deep disenchantment,” he said.

Verma said the report had been prepared in just 29 days so that it could be ready for next month’s session of Parliament, and he challenged the government to show the same urgency in passing and implementing its recommendations.

The report was welcomed by civil society groups, but there was considerable skepticism that many of its far-reaching proposals would be implemented.

“This is a major, major first step, but that major first step has to be discharged by Parliament in the next session,” Supreme Court lawyer Karuna Nadni said.