NEW DELHI — The panel set up in the wake of national protests after the gang rape of a young woman on a bus in the Indian capital 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 the country is governed.
The three-member panel was established to assuage national outrage over the rape and death of the 23-year-old student last month but did not bow to public pressure to propose the death penalty for the accused or lower the age at which young offenders can be tried; the attorney for one of the suspects in the New Delhi case says his client is 17 years old.
Instead, in a 200-page report, the panel slammed decades of apathy and criminal behavior in the way the country has been governed and said the nationwide protests were “a call to India to change the way in which women are treated.” It also spoke of a profound lack of connection 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, said at a news conference, accusing the police and government of “total apathy” toward the safety of citizens.
A call for the public to send suggestions to the committee generated nearly 80,000 responses, Verma said, showing the extent of anguish nationwide over the dangers India’s women face daily. Yet hardly any of the country’s police chiefs responded to requests for proposals on ways to reduce gender-based violence, Verma said, calling such an attitude “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 accused the authorities of a complacent response to the brutal Dec. 16 New Delhi attack, singling out Home Secretary R.K. Singh. The young woman died about 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, adding that, as an Indian citizen, he would have expected at least an apology from the police for failing to ensure safety.
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, and he called for urgent changes in Indian policing and stiffer penalties for child trafficking.
Verma also called for the government to shake off its “apathy” toward the growing problem of missing children, abducted 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 stronger penalties. The committee also recommended that the law be changed to make the sexual assault of men a crime, as well as recognize gay, transgender and transsexual rape.
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 in the northwest to Manipur in the remote northeast. 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 troops 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 the new session of Parliament next month. He challenged the government to show the same urgency in passing and implementing the panel’s recommendations.
Law Minister Ashwani Kumar told reporters in Mumbai that the government would look at the report “as its top-most priority” and follow through on any recommendations “consistent with fairness and justice.”
Opinion leaders and civil society groups welcomed the report, 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 Nundy told the news channel NDTV.
“Justice Verma Panel exposing arrears of 64 years of apathy in Criminal justice System, people, police, laws, prosecution on several counts,” tweeted anti-
corruption activist Kiran Bedi (@thekiranbedi), a former senior police officer.
“#JusticeVerma: hope, a blueprint, and a road map. We have to keep this going,” tweeted writer Nilanjana Roy (@nilanjanaroy).