Justice JS Verma, the head of the panel that was constituted in the aftermath of the horrific Delhi gangrape to suggest reforms in anti-sexual harassment laws, has made a startling claim. In an interview to Karan Thapar on Devil's Advocate, the former Chief Justice of India said that Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, the most important stakeholder in the issue, did not interact with the panel even once during the one month period that it took to prepare and submit its report.
Justice Verma added that the panel had been constituted upon instructions from the Prime Minister, who chose to convey the decision through Finance Minister P Chidambaram, rather than Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shine.
Below is the full transcript of the show:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate, and a special interview on the Verma Committee report with the chairman of the committee former Chief Justice of India Jagdish Sharan Verma. Chief Justice Verma, in your conclusion you state, "The existing laws, if faithfully and efficiently implemented, are sufficient to maintain law and order and to protect the safety and dignity of women and to punish offender." And yet side by side you have also recommended a whole host of new offences and a whole range of enhanced punishments - isn't that a contradiction here?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: No, laws need to be updated from time to time.
Karan Thapar: So your recommendations, both in terms of offences and in terms of enhance punishment, are updating the law.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Yes, updating the laws.
Karan Thapar: Now, you had some 80,000 recommendations to consider, yet you only gave yourself one month to do so. How committed and how confident are you of your recommendations or is there a room for you to reconsider some of them?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Everyone of them was read, there was a dedicated team of youngsters who did it.
Karan Thapar: So you stand by all your recommendations?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Yes.
Karan Thapar: You don't think there is a room for you to reconsider any of them?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: No.
Karan Thapar: Let's then come to some of the recommendations which have met with criticism. To being with, you have recommended new offences such as stalking, acid attack, voyeurism, which absolutely no one will disagree with. But you also recommended breach of command responsibility which makes senior officers in the Army or police forces accountable and responsible for sexual offences committed by their subordinates. People say why should a boss be held accountable for offences committed by an adult junior?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Because of the failure of his duty to act when his office demands that. If he has knowledge of it and he doesn't act, that is facilitating the ultimate act performed by his subordinate.
Karan Thapar: People in the Army point out that commanding officers often has as many as 1000 men under them, spread out in an area of 5 kilometers, if one of them misbehave at night why should the commanding officer end up serving seven years in jail, extendable to 10.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: It would depend on the facts of each case, and therefore if the rape or the sexual assault occurred in a situation which could be avoided by timely preventive measures taken by the boss then certainly he has to be liable.
Karan Thapar: You don't think it is unfair to inflict the offences of a junior onto his boss simply because you believe that the boss is responsible for everything the junior does.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Not everything, only those things which he could have avoided if he had exercised his responsibilities.
Karan Thapar: There is an element of subjective interpretation in that phrase, "Could have averted if he exercised his responsibility," doesn't that lead to unfairness?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: No that is a question of fact in each case. And that will depend of the facts of the case and the evidence led to prove that he could have acted when he didn't.
Karan Thapar: I will tell you why people are concerned that there is an element of subjective interpretation which would lead to arbitrariness. People say this particular recommendation, if accepted by the government, could lead to anti-Army groups foisting false changes not just on jawans, but commanding officers. Your recommendation in the hands becomes powerful weapon for mischief.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: But then that is where the courts will be there to see that false cases don't end up in conviction.
Karan Thapar: Except for the fact that the false case itself is harassment, officers will be harassed as a way of targeting the Army, as a way of carrying out vendetta against authority. No doubt the court may come down on their side eventually but what about the harassment before that?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: But that happens in every false case. And can we say there are no false cases in different laws even now.
Karan Thapar: so you have no qualms about the fact that this will encourage false cases.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: No.
Karan Thapar: Let's come to a second area of concern. Even in cases of gangrape leading to death, or leaving the victim in a permanent vegetative state, your committee has been reluctant to recommend death penalty, which means that in the case of the girl you called 'Nirbhaya' who was gangrape and murdered, under your recommendations, the men responsible would not get the death penalty? Why?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: You see, that was the unanimous opinion of even the women leaders who have been fighting for this cause for decades. Even the current trend is against death penalty.
Karan Thapar: Gopal Subramaniam, one of your committee members has gone on records to say that the three of you were inclined to recommend the death penalty but, under the influence of women leaders and women activist groups, you changed your mind. Is that true?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: We seriously discussed this issue as it was very relevant and ultimately came to this conclusion. All the women's groups feel that, and they are the biggest stakeholders. And in the current trend of abolition of death penalty for all offences we didn't want to add more to death penalty.
Karan Thapar: Your opinion was swayed by two things, one that all women's groups that you spoke to were against the death penalty, and secondly because of your own personal attitude to the death penalty.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Actually swayed may not be the correct way, we took into account all points of views and ultimately came to the conclusion that this appears to be most acceptable.
Karan Thapar: Let me question that by putting this to you, surely 'Nirbhaya's' case is the rarest of the rare, nothing of this sought has happened in India before, therefore clearly it requires death penalty, why shouldn't they get it?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: As a matter of fact I don't want to comment on the particular case which is sub judice, but then in situation like this, forget 'Nirbhaya', any case where a brutal rape ends in death, for that section 302 is also there.
Karan Thapar: Which means that in fact if judges in the court wish to give death penalty, they can.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Of course.
Karan Thapar: Which means there is room for your recommendation to be overturned or superseded by a judge.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: No not overturn that would be for causing death, section 302.
Karan Thapar: This is interesting, you have spoken about something that I was about to bring out myself. 'Nirbhaya', to use the name that you use for Delhi braveheart, was both gangraped and murdered. Seen as a murder, her case would clearly qualify for the death penalty, seen as a gangrape under your recommendation it wouldn't, isn't that different?
Jagdish Sharan Verma:No, it is like this, if you treat these two separate offences then only what you are saying is true. But a same person being gangraped and killed, when both offences are simultaneously committed that difficulty is not there, whether you had provided death penalty for gangrape for not.
Karan Thapar: So gangrape and killed, tried under section 302, can lead to death penalty?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: There are two offences 376 and 302.
Karan Thapar: But in terms of 376 your recommendation is either 20 years or the natural life. But tried under 302 it could go to death penalty.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: In cases where 302 is also attached.
Karan Thapar: So this depends either on the way police charge the accused or the way judge read the charges.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: No, it depends on the facts of the case, if there is death.
Karan Thapar: So there is room for death penalty depending on the facts of the case, regardless of your recommendation.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: No there is no question of our recommendation coming in conflict. 302 still provides for death penalty in rarest of rare case.
Karan Thapar: Thirdly sources in the Ministry of Home Affairs are saying that in fact you and your committee have exceeded your brief. They point out why did Justice Verma and his committee recommend that the assets and the liabilities as filed in an affidavit by a candidate at the time of his or her nomination should be verified by the CAG. And if they turn out to be false then they become grounds for disqualifying the person. They say the brief of this committee was to suggest amendments to the rape law, not to go into assets and liabilities and their verification and how that can become grounds for disqualification. They say you clearly breached and exceeded your brief.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: I am glad that Home Ministry has at least some response to me, even though this is what it is. But this is because of a narrow vision. Everything which is ultimately connected with or related to women's right to equality has been considered on basis of constitutional right to equality. And anything which impacts on women's right to equality, which is a constitutional guarantee, we have gone into it.
Karan Thapar: But, sir, how do the false assets and liabilities affect women's right to equality.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: I'm coming to that. Ultimately laws even relating to women are made in Parliament. Now that is legislature. Those persons with such dubious background, if they are to make the laws then certainly they are not committed to constitutional values.
Karan Thapar: I understand what you are saying, the report says this that you, so generously or some would say exaggeratedly, interpreted your briefs that you have gone simply from asked to suggest amendments to law of rape, to suggesting amendments to India's political system.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: You see, I personally have always believed, even while in office as a judge, that all human rights issues have to be viewed as extensively as possible because every aspect of human dignity is a human right. And anything which impacts on the human rights directly or indirectly must be covered.
Karan Thapar: Except you have touched on areas which are very minutely connected with women's rights. Some would say they are not connected at all and people believe that is he trying, to by some backdoor, give himself give access to making political pronouncements and suggesting political recommendations to give a higher profile to that report then it otherwise would have?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: You see, we are not concerned with the kind of profile which the local politicians might think. What we comprehended as the legitimate scope of our remit is what we have done. And electoral laws are important because they affect true representation, and unless there is true recommendation, the constitutional guarantees can't be fulfilled.
Karan Thapar: I will tell you why people say that you have exceeded your remit because you are playing politics in quotation. Because you also called for a new law, like the one that exists in the UK, establishing the following - criteria for admission in political parties, internal democracy in political parties, a code of conduct for political parties, transparencies in how they receive donations, declarations of the expenses. Now people say none of that has anything to do with rape. But you used your remit to suggest amendments to the rape laws, for making actual political pronouncements. You have taken a political stand. Is that justified?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: It is fully justified for the reason that the legislation should be comprised of the true representatives of the people, who alone will be fully committed to the constitutional philosophy. Gender justice suffers because of the inequality which are met to the women and unless you have people who are committed to the constitutional philosophy, none of these is what impacts all this.
Karan Thapar: In a nutshell you won't solve the problems that country faces, in particular gender equalities and women abuse, if we don't have honourable representatives in Parliament.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: If you have murderers and rapists deciding the laws related to women, they won't do anything against their vested interests.
Karan Thapar: Chief Justice Verma, how exactly was your committee set up? Who rang up, who briefed you, who instructed you?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Mr Chidambaram rang me up on December 23 afternoon, apparently at the behest of the Prime Minister, and persuaded me to accept heading this committee.
Karan Thapar: So the telephone conversation and instruction came from Mr Chidambaram, not from Home Minister Shinde?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: No Home Minister Shinde and I haven't talked to each other till today.
Karan Thapar: At all?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: At all.
Karan Thapar: So in other words the Prime Minister apparently instructed Mr Chidambaram, who I believe rang you from his constituency.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Yes, he was not in Delhi. He said, "I'm in my constituency. But this is what request I have to make."
Karan Thapar: So the core central figure in setting up Verma committee was Mr Chidambaram, not the Home Minister.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Must be the Prime Minister who spoke through Mr Chidambaram.
Karan Thapar:And just to clarify you also said that you have had no dealings with the Home Minister at all.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Till today, we have not had a conversation.
Karan Thapar: None at all.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: None.
Karan Thapar: Let me come to a second issue, how much support and assistance did the Verma Committee get from the government? Is it the case that in areas of critical secretarial staff, and more importantly the infrastructure, you actually had to rely on one of your members Gopal Subramaniam, not the government?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: As a matter of fact the only infrastructure which we took was availability of couple of rooms and I and Leila Seth being picked up from Noida from our home and dropped back.
Karan Thapar: You said two very important things, the secretarial assistance, office infrastructure, was in fact provided by Gopal Subramaniam.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Entirely by Gopal Subramaniam.
Karan Thapar: So you functioned entirely from Gopal Subramaniam's office? So beyond offering couple of rooms at Vigyan Bhawan, none of the staff, none of the infrastructure was available?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: There was one Deputy Secretary Mr Gupta, he was there. He was there to see what we needed, whenever we were in the rooms.
Karan Thapar: If I understood your earlier answer correctly, the most substantial assistance from the government was the offer of a car to take you and Justice Leila Seth from your homes in Noida to Gopal Subramaniam's office and back.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Or Vigyan Bhawan.
Karan Thapar: That is it. The most substantive thing that the government did was to give you use of a car?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: We didn't want anything more from them.
Karan Thapar: Now when parties and institutions were giving you their recommendations, I believe there was a certain amount of confusion, when the Congress' recommendation arrived on the night of January 5,and it led to Sonia Gandhi personally calling and apologising. Tell us what exactly happened?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Past midnight someone came to my residence and wanted to handover personally whatever suggestions were there. But somehow Sonia Gandhi came to know about it and she was very gracious, she rang me up personally the next day and apologised. To my great embarrassment I had to tell her please don't do that.
Karan Thapar: So she apologised because you were woken up in the middle of the night to be given Congress recommendations and she realised that this was an inappropriate thing to do, they could have been given at any other time.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: And certainly not at my home.
Karan Thapar: Now you have also said on record that some organisations sent their recommendations as late as Tuesday evening. Who are these organisations?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Don't ask me for the details but those who should have been very much involved in the exercise, came as late as January 22 evening at 5 pm. When we were proofreading the report and finalising it.
Karan Thapar: You know, you said those who should have been very much involved in the exercise gave their recommendations literally 12 hours before you actually formally handed in your report. In the interest of transparency who are these people?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: They are certainly important people.
Karan Thapar: Because they are important people, because they claim they made a great contribution, and in fact that is not so and it is so fraudulent, I think you should give their names.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: I think I better not.
Karan Thapar: Let me put it like this, Chief Justice can you deny, and note my words, that two people whose recommendations reached you at 5 pm on Tuesday evening, 12 hours before you had to hand in your report, are Prime Minister's special advisor Sam Pitroda, and secondly the speaker of the Lok Sabha Meira Kumar, can you deny that?
Jagdish Sharan Verma: I prefer to keep quiet.
Karan Thapar: So you are not denying it.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: As I said I'm silent.
Karan Thapar:If I take that as a confirmation that I'm correct what would you say.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: I would said nothing, I would keep quiet.
Karan Thapar: Justice Verma this is so important that I'm going to repeat it, you are deliberately not denying it, when I asked you if I take your refusal to denial, confirmation that I'm correct, once again you are silent.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: I'm concentrating on more important things.
Karan Thapar: I think diplomatically you have confirmed what I have said. I will take as confirmation, the audience will of course judge for themselves. Thank you very much for this interview.
Jagdish Sharan Verma: Thank you.