The ordinance on sexual assault cleared by the Union Cabinet and signed into law on Sunday by the President is problematic, not in what it seeks to achieve, but in what it does not attempt to redress. If this is all that the government intends to do on the basis of the Justice Verma Committee report, then, quite worryingly, the nationwide protests and expressions of outrage at rape and other sexual crimes against women have had little effect on policymakers. The committee’s recommendations relating to marital rape, police reform, and prosecution of security personnel charged with sexual assault under ordinary criminal law, have all been blanked out. On some issues, like the imposition of the death penalty, the ordinance does exactly the opposite of what the report recommended. This, despite the overwhelming majority of women’s organisations concurring with the committee’s reasoned stand. If the government adopts the report’s recommendations in toto or very substantially — as it ought to were it to be serious about fighting the menace of sexual violence — the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act cannot survive in its present form. And, policing and police administration will have to change drastically. In cherry picking from the report, the government appears to have dumped the hard parts and held up a diluted version as its core. The cabinet seems to have taken up the least controversial recommendations, and packed them into an ordinance to avoid any extended debate on the wider issues and sidestep criticism that it was slow to act.
The other recommendations in the report might need further study, debate and fine-tuning before implementation, but they must remain on the reform agenda for prompt implementation, and not be brushed aside in silence. Whether there was an urgent need to bring in an ordinance when Parliament is to meet in three weeks for the budget session is questionable, especially when the provisions cannot be applied retrospectively to the Delhi rape-and-murder case. However, sexual crimes against women have not come down since the sensational Delhi case, and the government must have felt the ordinance could be of some deterrent and punitive value. So long as the bill to replace the present ordinance is well-drafted and comprehensive, there will be little room for complaint. The real problem, then, is not what the government has done, but what it appears unwilling to do. By all accounts, it does not have the political will to push ahead with the most substantive points in the Justice Verma Committee report. And this is unlikely to change without sustained pressure from civil society and people’s movements.