Former Chief Justice JS Verma’s pronouncements during the release of his Committee’s report on the amendments to the criminal law relating to sexual assault and indeed the report itself make for interesting reading. For one, the eminent jurist has pulled no punches in attacking the government, the police force, and indeed society itself for the systemic failure that led to the brutal sexual assault on a 23-year-old student in Delhi in December last year and her subsequent death.
But the 656-page report is only the starting point from which this nation can reclaim lost ground on gender equality. This is the proverbial first step in a long journey that has so many hurdles and roadblocks that a country with a weak heart might as well give up. As Justice Verma has pointed out, the fundamental problem when dealing with sexual assault cases is not legislation, but lack of governance and the state’s inability to prevent crimes against women. He also held the state responsible for any inaction on its part that could cause violation of human rights.
Yet, there are two constant fears when dealing with reports such as this: one, that the report, like many in the past, will either be dumped or watered down to the point of non-recognition by a government unwilling to take bold steps; and two, even if implemented at the Centre, its implementation in the states will need to be monitored with eagle eyes. After all, law and order is a state subject.
The biggest worry, however, remains a mindset change in society. How do you legislate the human psyche? Where does one start? End female foeticide? Put an end to dowry deaths? Tell men to not look at women as sexual objects? Stop tolerating sexual harassment at the workplace? It is going to be tough road ahead. But the Justice Verma Committee has held a mirror to us all common citizens, lawmakers, the police and the bureaucracy. It is up to us whether we deliver on the promise of a just society.