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India is in mourning. One of her daughters, a promising 23-year old physiotherapy student, was the victim of a brutal gang rape in South Delhi in the night of December 16, 2012 and succumbed to her injuries two weeks later. She was aptly named Nirbhaya –the fearless- by the media in view of her valiant resistance to the crazed perverts who had assaulted her and the indomitable spirit shown by her in the face of death. The incident aroused the national conscience like no other crime in the past. The tragedy of Nirbhaya brought centre stage the uncomfortable issues of women’s autonomy and the society’s responsibility to provide a secure environment for its exercise. Sadly, the incident was not the last of its kind. There has been an unending succession of such shameful incidents in the national capital and elsewhere in the country. The victims have ranged from infants to very old women. In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya outrage, the national capital witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of public anguish and mass protests which reverberated across the country. At the heart of the stir were the angst and pent up anger of the youth over the failure of the state to deliver good governance and provide basic security to its citizens. After a characteristically ham-handed attempt to quell the spontaneous protests in Delhi, the government resorted to the time-tested device of defusing a crisis by setting up an inquiry committee. A three-member committee headed by the late Justice J.S. Verma was constituted to look into possible amendments of the Criminal Law to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for criminals committing sexual assault of extreme nature against women.
As is its wont, having achieved the immediate objective of assuaging the public outrage over the incident by appointing the Committee, the government did little to facilitate its functioning by providing the requisite infrastructure and administrative support. Transcending the narrow limits of its terms of reference, the Justice Verma Committee chose to carry out an in-depth analysis of the lacunae in the legal framework for dealing with gender violence and the role played by various elements of the sociopolitical environment in fostering it. It received over eighty thousand representations from concerned citizens and organizations, including a joint memorandum submitted on behalf of Common Cause, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Foundation for Restoration of National Values and Manushi Sangathan. The Committee also held a series of public hearings and recorded the testimony of numerous experts and activists.
In order to accomplish the herculean task that it had taken upon itself, the Committee had to draw upon the personal resources and networks of its members for processing the vast body of information presented to it. In sharp contrast to most government-appointed committees and commissions of inquiry, which seek to perpetuate themselves, the Verma Committee pushed itself to present its report to the government one day ahead of the apparently impossible deadline of one month. It was the last service to the nation rendered by Justice J. S. Verma, jurist and humanitarian par excellence, and one of the most admired Chief Justices of India.