A Criminal Disconnect

Justice Verma Committee is not the first official report seeking review of AFSPA. Since 2004, a number of official panels have made such recommendations. The only constant is the government in Delhi believes it is wiser not to fiddle with the ‘gospel’, a Kashmir Life report.

Even in Kashmir, many faces smiled as Justice J S Verma committee report on the amendments to the criminal law was submitted and simultaneously made public. It did mention the crisis in conflict-ridden Kashmir on account of the absolute powers that the state’s security paraphernalia is enjoying with impunity under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

“It has rightly suggested that no person, whether in uniform or in civvies, are above law when it comes to abuse of a woman,” industry lobbyist Shakeel Qalander told a news conference. “Now we expect justice in cases of the past two decades, where Indian civil society was silent all these years.” Prof Nayeema, his colleague in a civil society formation, had briefed Justice Verma committee about 900 rapes that various security agencies have committed.

Almost everybody has welcomed the recommendations. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who once promised withdrawing the AFSPA, has assured he will implement everything possible. He has even announced an all-party meeting to discuss the report.

Observations of the panel are candid and clear. Impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of internal security duties, the report said, is being legitimized by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. “We therefore believe that strong measures to ensure such security and dignity will go a long way not only to provide women in conflict areas their rightful entitlements, but also to restore confidence in the administration in such areas leading to mainstreaming,” the report reads.

It was on this basis that the panel recommended for immediate implementation that instances of sexual violence against women by members of the armed forces or uniformed personnel must be brought under the purview of ordinary criminal law; special care must also be taken to ensure the safety of women who are complainants and witnesses in cases of sexual assault by armed personnel; and more importantly, judicially or legislatively appointed special commissioners be appointed for women’s safety and security in all areas of conflict in the country.

These commissioners, it was recommended, must have adequate powers to monitor and initiate action for redress and criminal prosecution in all cases of sexual violence against women by armed personnel; ensure the safety and security of women detainees in police stations, and women at Army or paramilitary checkpoints, and this should be a subject under the regular monitoring. The report has taken care of the happening in border areas where the populations usually rely on the armed forces. “The brutalities of the armed forces faced by residents in border areas have led to a deep disenchantment, and the lack of mainstreaming of such persons into civil society,” the report said. “Serious allegations of persistent sexual assault on the women in such areas and conflict areas are causing more alienation.”

The report seeks urgency in reviewing the continuance of AFSPA and AFSPA-like legal protocols in internal conflict areas as soon as possible. “This is necessary for determining the propriety of resorting to this legislation in the area(s) concerned,” it said. Seeking amendment in Section 6 of AFSPA, the panel recommends it to read like this: “No prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act. Provided that, no sanction shall be required if the person has been accused of committing an offence under Section 354, Section 354A, Section 354B, Section 354C, Section 376(1), Section 376(2), Section 376(3), Section 376A, Section 376B, Section 376C, Section 376D, Section 376D or Section 376E of the Indian Penal Code.”

The three member panel constituted in wake of the brutal gang-rape of a paramedic student in Delhi was received very well across India. It submitted its report in a record 30 days so that the Parliament in the budget session will debate and implement it. —

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