In 1979, the Supreme Court of India described an act of rape as a “randy molestation,” before going on to lament “societal permissiveness on the carnal front,” evinced in its view by “libidinous brahmacharis” and “lascivious dating and mating by unwed students.” Former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma, former Supreme Court judge Leila Seth, and eminent lawyer Gopal Subramaniam have, this week, helped blow away the toxic shadow that words like these cast over debates on sexual violence in India. Formed in the wake of the gang rape of a Delhi woman last year, their committee has produced a text that will long be invoked in debates over criminal justice in India. Few of their 22 recommendations — on everything from the promulgation of long-pending criminal law amendments to police reform and even street lighting — are in themselves new. However, the report founds itself on the Constitution’s promise of equality and justice for all, bringing the rights of women to the centre-stage of our national project. Not all will back each of the committee’s proposals. For example, the committee’s proposal to disqualify politicians facing certain kinds of criminal cases from standing for election even prior to conviction is controversial. The idea has been resisted by all major parties since 1998. Yet, the foundations have been laid for a forward-looking debate — and meaningful action.
Even as we celebrate this progress, therefore, it is also important to cast an eye on how much work remains ahead. Like all manifestos for change, the report paints in broad strokes — strokes that will need careful filling-in to become a blueprint for real change. Police reform, for example, is key to its thrust. Yet, the report does not tell us precisely what kinds of laws are needed to bring about autonomous — and perhaps even more important, competent — policing. Elsewhere, its recommendations can be accused of a degree of naiveté. It would indeed be a step forward, for example, if all marriages were to be “registered in the presence of a magistrate.” Yet, it is hard to see how a “magistrate will ensure that the marriage has been solemnised without any demand for dowry.” Perhaps most challenging will be giving teeth to recommendations that involve profound social change. It is also true that our society needs children to be “informed and equipped with the knowledge and skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality.” The real problem, though, is we have a society without a responsible idea of either sexuality or equality. India’s recent history is, sadly, littered with exhortations for change which went nowhere. It will take sustained citizen mobilisation to ensure the committee’s work amounts to more than words on paper.