The fury and frustration that followed the Delhi rape has been transformed into a road map for rights

The aftermath of the brutal rape of the 23-year-old medical student in Delhi has witnessed a persistent degrading of the public discourse. Having been subjected to crudely offensive remarks by members of the political establishment, right from belittling a serious movement for equality as led by ‘painted and dented ladies’ to ostensibly sympathetic responses which belittle women who have suffered a serious violation of their bodily integrity by describing them as nothing more than ‘zinda laash’ (living corpses), we finally have a document authored by a committee set up by the state which honours the victim.

The Verma Committee report most fundamentally alters the public discourse on crimes against women by placing these crimes within the framework of the Indian Constitution and treating these offences as nothing less than an egregious violation of the right to live with dignity of all women. What is particularly moving and inspiring about the report is that it does so by placing the autonomy and indeed the sexual autonomy of women at the very centre of its discourse.

It also offers us a rethinking of what is meant by the offence of rape. In the Committee’s thinking it is very important for Indian society and the state to move away from thinking of rape as a crime against honour and instead look at it as a serious violation of bodily integrity. In language that is seen perhaps for the first time in an official report, the Committee quotes a rape survivor. ‘Rape is horrible. But it is not horrible for all the reasons that have been drilled into the heads of Indian women………I reject the notion that my virtue is located in my vagina, just as I reject the notion that men’s brains are in their genitals.’

The discussion on rape is located in an understanding of women as full and equal citizens and it is intrinsic to the argument of the report that it is only by guaranteeing women full and equal rights that sexual violence can even be tackled. It is in this context that the Committee discusses the phenomenon of honour killing and concludes that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that ‘choices made by men and women in respect of marriage’ will not be interfered with by institutions such as khap panchayats.

Breaching public patriarchy

While the Committee breaches the inner wall of patriarchy, especially by bringing marital rape within the ambit of rape, it is also equally successful in breaching the public patriarchy of the state. For far too long, the security forces in India have enjoyed complete impunity for crimes of sexual violence committed against women in situations of armed conflict. For the first time in history, the Committee has recognised that sexual violence against women committed by members of the armed forces must come within the purview of ordinary criminal law.

The Committee also introduces the notion of ‘command responsibility’ whereby a public servant in command, control or supervision of the armed forces or police would be held responsible for failure to exercise control over the actions of his subordinates resulting in rape or sexual assault. Here again the Committee breaches the code of impunity of the Indian state for sexual offences committed by its personnel.

It has shown a sense of occasion by recognising that a historic moment such as this must be transformative for all. As such, it expressly suggests that the definition of those who could be affected by sexual assault should include both men as well as homosexual and transgender persons. It thus recommends that the law expressly protect all persons from rape and sexual assault.

Circle of empathy

The jet of anger which emerged through the brutal rape in Delhi last month has through the work of the Committee been transmuted into an ever widening circle of empathy which includes children in juvenile facilities, trafficked women and children, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender persons, domestic workers, women in situations of armed conflict as well as women in violent marital relationships. The Committee through making recommendations for all these vulnerable groups has seized the moment and underlined the patriarchal ills of the Indian state and society.

The fact that the report is based upon a historic articulation of hurt and harm suffered by Indian women emerges most poignantly through the articulation of the offence of rape which results in a persistent vegetative state for which the punishment is rigorous imprisonment of a minimum of 20 years going up to life. This recognition of an aggravated form of sexual assault is a tribute to Aruna Shanbaug, who was brutally raped and choked with a dog chain and is living in a persistent vegetative state for the past 36 years.

The Committee has performed a fine balancing act of being sensitive to public opinion without allowing mere public sentiment to emerge as the arbiter of policy and law.

In doing so, it resists the tendency of basing its recommendations on shifting notions of right and wrong and instead derives its recommendations from a constitutional morality.

It has done an incredible job of transmuting pain and anger into an inspirational road map for the future. It is now up to civil society to ensure that the radical recommendations of the Committee are converted into reality.

(Arvind Narrain is with the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore.)