Justice Verma Committee Report: In Conversation with Gopal Subramanium

Bar & Bench

The three-member Committee headed by former Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma set up after the gang rape of a twenty-three year old student in Delhi, submitted its Report on January 23, 2012.

The Committee, whose members include Justice (Retd) Leila Seth and former Solicitor General, Gopal Subramanium, in its 630-page report has looked at the entire gamut of laws relating to gender justice and crimes against women.

Bar & Bench spoke to Justice Verma Committee Member and Senior Advocate Gopal Subramanium. Excerpts from the interview:

Gopal Subramanium
Gopal Subramanium

Bar & Bench: 30 days, 70,000+ suggestions and a report which is more than 600 pages long. How did the Committee manage to process so much information in such little time? How did the entire team function?

Gopal Subramanium: The first thing, which I need to tell you truthfully, is that we slept very little. On an average for may be two or three hours a day. We had a team of 14 juniors. We had multifiltration levels with respect to the e-mails. The ones, which showed some interest, it would go to the second filter and the ones, which had simple suggestions like death penalty, we would classify them in one box. The ones, which had more detailed stuff, would go to the next filter and then the ones, which were substantive, would come to us.

I was busy working on the different facets of rape, because I realized that the subject is just not about an offence against a woman. It involves other implications in terms of the Constitution of India, in terms of denial of equality etc. Ultimately we have to understand that the cause of the violence is actually the cause of lack of understanding of equality. This is the point. So we necessarily had to get into the discourse relating to the Constitution, the sociology, the patriarchy and so on and so forth.

The brain storming sessions were done essentially with the three members of the Committee. Of course we would call a particular person in the team who was connected with a particular subject to discuss a portion of the report. So we applied this on a selective basis.

Bar & Bench: Justice Verma said that the failure of good governance was the root cause for the unsafe environment for women. He also said “Deficiency of gender bias, that cannot be overcome by laws, it has to be overcome by administration”. Does the Committee think that better administration and good governance would make it safer environment for women than stricter laws? 

Gopal Subramanium: When we use the word good governance I think we need to understand what he meant. He meant constitutional governance with an informed view. Now, what does an “informed view” mean? An informed view would mean that there is respect for women as equals. That’s the first point. You need to think like that. You need to de-condition your existing mind structures. All this was necessary.

What are women claiming? Women were not claiming special laws, women were not claiming special aids, women were not asking for charity. Women simply said that there is a law, so why don’t you follow it? I think it is in that context Justice Verma said that that if you implement laws, there will be very few grievances and very little rapes for that matter of fact.

But the problem is a little more complicated than that. So we went into the other sociological aspects, the aspects relating to training, to parenting, to how the children should be taught in school, how there should be gender de-construction, how should the idea of masculinity be revisited. We wanted to do all this, so that’s why we went into such detail. So it is also a psychological report in a certain way because we studied the psychology of man. At the same time we have also said that a man has also certain characteristics of tenderness and respect but because of our male stereotyping, it’s quashed. The society says kill it; you are not suppose to be tender. 

Bar & Bench: Amongst the various recommendations made, there is a suggestion to include acts of sexual violence by members of the armed forces, under ordinary criminal law and taking away the statutory immunity. Do you think that this suggestion will be met with resistance by the armed forces? 

Gopal Subramanium: We are talking about errant people. We are talking about people who have committed crimes. We are not talking about people of the Armed Forces as such. We are talking about people who have misused their positions and are claiming immunity. That immunity should not be available and they have to be accountable. Rape has nothing to do with national security. Rape, unfortunately, is one of the oldest forms of militarization and if you read some of the learned scholars who have written about Palestine and Israel, they have talked about how the women’s body becomes the boundary marker for aggression. So, we have taken that into account and that’s why we have said that you have to revisit these laws and review it.

Bar & Bench: The Committee has rejected the demand for dealth penalty for rape and lowering the age of a juvenile who is arrested in a rape charge from 18 to 16. What is the reason? 

Gopal Subramanium: I should tell you that we did consider the idea of imposing death penalty but then I saw that the majority of women’s organization said ‘No’ to this idea. Women’s organization said, “Please understand that they are a part of our society, we have to take as much responsibility for them as they do.” Women are very mature. They do not want an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. The way in which women presented the scholars and the studies before us was absolutely brilliant. So we had to take note of that position that they don’t want death penalty and they were content with 14 years for life with remission but we decided to give stricter punishment so we went up to the remainder of life. We did a bit of balancing.

The reason for not lowering the age is we have not done our duty. The society has not done its duty towards people in educating them. We have kept them in poverty and we have put them in juvenile homes, which are absolute ghetto like.

Bar & Bench: The Report has suggested that MPs and MLAs must resign as soon as charges are framed against them? Do you think this will happen?

Gopal Subramanium: The political rights of women are being impaired. Women are entitled to political equality. That’s one of the ways that will strengthen women. Women can’t come and vote when the individual in-charge of the business of a state is actually a man charged with 6 murder offences. The Election Commission confirmed it to us and told us that they have been fighting from 1998 but no one listens to them.

It’s a challenge we have thrown out to the government but you see we had to throw it. You know there is a lot of anger in society and we have attempted actually to give suggestions, which will address the anger correctly, but if somebody decides “No. Nothing needs to be done and everything is okay”, I think they do it on their own peril.

Bar & Bench: Life sentence should mean for the rest of the convict’s natural life. Why has there been so much judicial confusion regarding this fact?

Gopal Subramanium: That’s because of different judgments and remissions and so on.

Bar & Bench: The committee has recognised marital rape as a criminal offence. Do you think this will be legislated soon?

Gopal Subramanium: I think it should be done. I think this is the way you actually respect a woman even in a relationship. The view of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada is that it doesn’t matter in what capacity you rape. So, we have followed this view.

Bar & Bench: The Committee completed the report within the time line. Will the government show the same leadership and implement the report?

Gopal Subramanium: I mean it’s a very big challenge for the government but I don’t want to be pessimistic. I think the youth of India wants a change. Have you seen the kind of comments on social media? It’s enormously supportive of the report. Two people have gone on the television to say we need to read, absorb and translate this report in our lives because there is a lot of wisdom. So, if anybody doesn’t want to act on these kinds of recommendations, I think they are exposing themselves totally.

India is in the throes of change. We want India to change. We request the government to pay earnest consideration to our proposals. They have not been made with a view to confront or embarrass anybody but yes we have to confront the truth.

Bar & Bench: Offences like stalking, disrobing, voyerism under IPC have been recommended. Do you think these offences are going to be seen as sexually violent act? Don’t you think the most important thing is that the attitude and mindsets of the people needs to change to bring all these reforms?

Gopal Subramanium: Yes of course but these are transformative processes. These offences will hopefully, when the mindsets change, become obsolete. You see you have to use law as an instrument of change. That’s why we had to do this because lots of girls drop out of schools due to eve teasing, stalking and things like that.

Bar & Bench: How was the entire experience reading so many suggestions, meeting people and understanding issues? Has this experience changed you in any way?

Gopal Subramanium: That’s a great question. I am not the same person. I feel somewhat concerned at the lack of compassion in our society by the State. This report is a report, which is calling on the State to exercise socialist values of compassion and equality. I don’t think anybody should object to it, but if people think that nobody can ask any questions or it is an anti democratic, then it shows that you can’t tolerate any kind of correctional measure in a democracy.

For a man who has appeared for the police, who has protected the police officers, and I still protect them and will protect them, I was disappointed in some ways in some of the things which I saw. I think somewhere they have gone wrong. They have to correct themselves and it involves leadership. It needs moral vision.

Bar & Bench: What do you have to say to the youth of the country who have shown the way and contributed most towards change?

Gopal Subramanium: Fantastic people. We salute them. Amazing people, no gender, no religion, no caste, just people coming together. They could connect to the pain of a girl, that’s enough. Just one authentic movement like this can bring about a change in India. Now remember this – if the response of an authentic movement is not going to be honored then I am afraid they would be ill advised to ignore it.

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