The Justice J. S. Verma Committee was constituted to recommend amendments to the Criminal Law so as to provide for faster trials and enhanced punishment for criminals accused of committing sexual assault against women. Formed in the wake of the horrific gang rape, brutalisation and subsequent death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student last December in one of Delhi’s busiest roads, the Committee’s report highlights the measures needed to address the safety and security of women in India and ways to strengthen laws and administrative functioning to curb sexual offences. It rightly indicts institutional apathy for endangering women’s safety, stresses the need to transform processes, structures and attitudes, and highlights the need for increased physical infrastructure, public amenities and services.
The report provides a blueprint for the radical transformation of gender relations to stop the unfair treatment of women. And it does so within the framework of constitutional guarantees and gender equality. India’s Constitution was a milestone for women’s advancement; the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sex is guaranteed in the list of justiciable fundamental rights, as also protection under the law and equal opportunity in public employment. The Constitution not only accorded equality to women but also empowered the state to adopt positive measures in their favour. But it is apparent that state and society do not change with the adoption of a radical Constitution or legislation or policies. There is a wide gap between the gradually broadening notion of women’s rights and the limited realisation of these. Patriarchal underpinnings of the state and society, and distinctions and discrimination based on these structures, persist. Though India is a vibrant democracy where women enjoy equal rights in theory, in practice, vast numbers of women lack essential support for the fundamental functions of human life.
The Verma Committee treats the issue of sexual violence in a wide-ranging manner, focusing on offences from voyeurism to sex crimes by security personnel enjoying legal immunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA). Rape is located within the multi-layered and multi-dimensional nature of discrimination that marks every stage of a woman’s life. This approach alters the public discourse on crimes against women by treating these offences as nothing less than a violation of the rights of all women to live with dignity. Conceived as a bill of rights for women, the report marks a big step forward in the struggle for women’s rights, more specifically the rights to sexual autonomy and bodily integrity. However, the government has largely ignored this focus on rights, and sought to address the issue of women’s safety mainly through changes in criminal law.
The adoption of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 by Parliament on March 19, 2013, demonstrates the government’s readiness to adopt an expanded definition of rape and enhanced punishment, which is welcome. However, the overall response is selective and limited to legal change. The government has simply not done enough in the face of unprecedented protests and public outrage against the increasing insecurity and violence faced by women all over India.
These protests obviously call for multi-pronged action by state and non-state actors. By all accounts, the government does not have the political will to push ahead with the most substantive points in the report. Especially, changes in the Representation of the People Act, 1950, which calls for barring from elections candidates accused of offences taken cognizance of by a magistrate. In view of this, parties should deny tickets to those accused of serious crimes against women. But there is no indication that parties are willing to signal zero tolerance towards gender violence, which should begin at home by denying tickets to men accused of sex crimes. This reluctance is not surprising as so many of the framers and implementers of the law are themselves complicit in the very culture of patriarchy that discriminates against women.
Women’s political participation is of great importance in this scenario of impunity and inequality. Different kinds of inequalities are serious impediments in opening up the capabilities and participation of women in economy and polity. In point of fact, one of the major hurdles to gender equality is the attitude of political parties, which is responsible for the under-representation of women in legislatures in particular and decision-making in general.
This is a good moment to explore the role of party politics which has been loath to provide women institutional access, whereas women are very visible in social movements and outside the formal corridors of power. Increasing the legislative representation of women is of the essence because political parties have done a pretty bad job of representing women’s interests and addressing questions of gender equality. They have essentially made use of women for the purpose of political campaigning and mobilization of constituencies during elections. But when it comes to helping women attain political office they act as gatekeepers to stop them from breaking the barriers of patriarchy and the male monopoly of politics.
On the other hand, women are quite important in Indian politics today. India, at this moment, has more key politicians who are women than any other country in the world. Four major political parties are headed by women. Even though women hold leadership positions in parties, this has not resulted in large-scale women’s participation in party politics, and so they remain an ineffective minority. Influential women leaders have rarely taken up women’s issues, as they don’t want to be labeled women’s leaders; rather, they want to be known as leaders of people. Besides, when it comes to ticket distribution, the absence of internal democracy and transparency adversely affects women. This means the party system, dominated by political patronage and money power, actually works against the political participation of women.
Consequently, the number of women candidates fielded by parties has remained almost stagnant. It is difficult for women to get nominated as candidates because important political offices which take decisions are traditionally held by men. Very few parties care to give important assignments to women even after they get elected. Once elected, there is a tendency to give them ‘soft portfolios’ and these women are rarely found in leadership positions in their parties. Most often, they are relegated to the women’s wing of the party and are made to concentrate on specifically women’s issues, and occasionally on more general concerns such as the price rise, which is seen to primarily affect housewives.
The larger number of women in local government institutions is an area where very significant advances have occurred. This has played an important role in encouraging women’s political participation and leadership more generally. In addition, having women as at least one-third of all local elected representatives has begun to transform gender relations and call into question the deeply entrenched patriarchal system. But women are not well-represented in the higher echelons of political life. They hold a mere 10 percent of seats in Parliament and even less in several state Assemblies, which also reflects their lack of participation in decision-making processes. Yet, an important arena that is crucial for women’s rights and gender equality to grow is that of national politics where no progress has been registered.
Nothing symbolizes political patriarchy more than the controversies surrounding the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), seeking to reserve 33 percent of seats in Parliament and the state Assemblies, into law. Nearly every political party has endorsed the Bill in their election manifestos and yet all governments have failed to pass it. Almost all parties claim to be strong advocates of women’s participation through legislative reservation, but in practice have resisted it. Politicians cutting across parties oppose women’s quota because they recognize that the Bill, if it becomes the law of the land, would shake the ground beneath their feet. The most strident opposition has come from so-called caste parties who are demanding a sub-quota for backward castes and minorities, but their opposition serves to obscure the unspoken and behind-the-scenes hostility that is at work in most parties. The greatest fear among male MPs is that they will lose their seats. This fear is particularly strong among first-time MPs. This apprehension was not there when the panchayat reservations was enacted because sitting MPs were not going to lose their seats. This is why the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution were passed without much dissent. In fact, women’s reservation in local government has gone up to 50 percent, which has gone unnoticed.
In a major step forward, the Rajya Sabha passed the Women’s Reservation Bill on March 9, 2010, which is the furthest the Bill has ever got. But its fate in the Lok Sabha is unsure. If political parties are serious about the rights of women they should pass the Bill without further delay. A critical mass of 33 percent women in legislatures can demand and push gender-just policies and laws. It will catalyze change in state and society, challenge patriarchy and unleash a broader process of social change. What is more, it can change the character of Indian politics with a greater focus on common interests.