Justice Verma leaves behind legacy of tougher rape law

NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - The main architect of India’s new anti-rape law died late on Monday, leaving a legacy of tougher punishments for sex crimes, the creation of new offences under the law, and measures to make the police more accountable when responding to rape victims.

Chairman of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), J.S. Verma, speaks at a news conference in Calcutta in this September 4, 2002 Reuters file photo. REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw/Files

Former Chief Justice J.S. Verma, 80 -- who headed a panel which drew up a blueprint on tackling gender violence after public outcry over a fatal gang rape in December -- died in a hospital on the outskirts of the capital after suffering multiple organ failure.

His panel’s recommendations were described as “path-breaking” and “progressive” by women’s groups and were used by the government to draft a new law to crack down on rising violence against women.

“Justice Verma was held in great respect as a public figure, not only for his vast understanding and knowledge of law and the many path-breaking judgments he delivered as a Judge, but also for his deep sensitivity to the concerns of the common man and his fierce commitment to the public good,” a statement from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office said.

“He (The Prime Minister) especially remembered the extraordinary leadership of Justice Verma as Chairman of the committee that was set up to suggest changes in law for dealing more effectively with offences against women,” it added.

Working with a small group of young lawyers, Verma and the other panel members, Leila Seth and Gopal Subramaniam, delivered their recommendations in a massive 630-page report in January, after just 29 days’ work.

He said his panel had taken into account more than 80,000 responses on tackling sex crimes it had received from the public, women’s rights groups, academics, gender experts and lawyers.


Verma told NDTV in January he had typed parts of the report himself with one finger as his pension did not allow him the luxury of hiring support staff.

He called for tough jail terms for gang rape; for acid attacks, stalking, voyeurism and trafficking to be made specific offences; and for dereliction of duty by the police or medical authorities in responding to a rape victim to be made a criminal offence.

Many of his recommendations were considered controversial in this traditional country where patriarchal attitudes remain deep-rooted, particularly across the vast rural areas where more than half India’s population live.

His suggestion that marital rape be made a criminal offence was rejected, right-wing politicians arguing that it would “destroy the Indian family” and that if a man raped his wife the matter could be settled through counselling.

Other recommendations, such as lowering the age of consent to 16, prohibiting politicians facing rape charges from standing for election, and reviewing the army’s sweeping powers in conflict areas, were also ignored by parliamentarians.

As a result, women’s groups said the new anti-rape law which was passed last month was welcome, but certainly not the watershed law they had wanted, and had hoped would be based on Verma’s report.

In a five-decade career, Verma was Chief Justice of India from 1997/98, as well as chairman of the National Human Rights Commission and the News Broadcasters Standards Authority.

He is credited with several landmark judgments including one which has led to sexual harassment in the workplace being made a criminal offence.

In his last public appearance earlier this month, at which his panel received a “Justice for Women” award, Verma said efforts to combat gender abuse needed to continue even after the law was enacted.

“Our duty is to ensure that this remains sustained ... that all that needs to be done will be done -- not only to cure these aberrations when they happen, punish the people when offences are committed, but also to ensure that they are prevented,” he said.

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