Jagdish Sharan Verma

(18 January 1933-22 April 2013)

“If at all, you feel tired after it is over, but not before that” said Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma (JSV) when asked how he managed the backbreaking toil of producing report in 29 days the historic 630 page that powerfully advocated a veritable paradigm shift in the official response to violence against women in India. As our comrades who deposed before the Justice Verma Committee later observed, it was inspiring to see how the former Chief Justice, at this age, sat through the proceedings from 10 in the morning to 8 in the evening, long beyond the allocated time, taking his own notes and zealously interacting with everybody.

On other days he along with his teammates worked from morning to midnight, typing a lot himself (the government had not provided him with even a stenographer, let alone other supporting staff or infrastructure). Justice Verma’s team produced a report that was in sync with the protest movement on the streets demanding a stringent anti- rape law, and with the women’s movement in India. And it was a report the Government could not, in spite of all its efforts, ignore. The report played a big part in the fact that the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, with whatever shortcomings, got Presidential assent on April 2. Perhaps it was now time the intrepid fighter could think of taking some rest. On April 19 India’s foremost champion of judicial activism was hospitalised and three days later he bade adieu to his many admirers in India and abroad.

Most of us came to know JSV -- former Chief Justice of India, Chairperson of Human Rights Commission and head of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority -- only in his last months, thanks to the wide media attention he then received. And it was really a humbling and illuminating experience watching JSV in televised interviews. He always spoke softly, in a common person’s language totally free from legal jargon, but with bold conviction and disarming command over the subject. When an interviewer expressed her admiration “on behalf of the nation” for the great service rendered, his reply was, “Let me tell you, you are giving credit to us, but I want to give credit to people who appeared before us. It was a very humbling experience to find that all the heads of the women’s groups who came and with whom we interacted … when we asked was there anyone amongst you who was there in the protests, then only they came forward. When we asked their experience we learnt that they were also persons who were hit by lathi and these women, all of them from women’s groups, unanimously said no death penalty, no castration. And the most forceful representation for not reducing the age of juvenile also came, apart from others, from Prof Ved Kumari, who is an expert in this field, giving reasons with statistics etc. So we were assisted in this task and I told my colleagues and mind you, they were not at all elderly women, but also young women also said no death penalty. In the first place, statistics and study show that death penalty does not reduce crime. Secondly, in the current trend, abolition of death penalty for all offences, to create a new offence with death penalty, was something against the tide.”

Apart from the agitating women, he was all praise about the militant youth:

“To me the greatest hope and the reassurance of faith in the future generation is what I saw as a result of this horrendous incident, which really triggered this entire response even of the government. And the spontaneous response of the youth and the peaceful protest with no one knowing who the other person is sitting by his side; all of them coming on their own and to watch their protest in a peaceful manner and not reacting even when there was provocation.”

After admiring the movement, he gave voice to the people’s wrath and said that the protests “should be taken as a warning” by those in power: “If they don’t rise to the occasion, I think the people of this country, particularly the youth, will not forgive them. So they better do it for their own sake.” This was a warning even the Indian parliament – that arch-reactionary bastion of patriarchy – just could not ignore: and the movement on the street that made the Verma Report its manifesto, reinforced the warming. The Government had to act upon the Verma Committee recommendations without excessive delay, signalling a partial victory of the movement.

Justice Verma’s first landmark judgement for women’s rights came in the Vishakha case of 1997, when a Supreme Court bench headed by him laid down guidelines (since there was no law) to prevent harassment of women at work, thereby filling in a vacuum caused by legislative inaction. The bench observed that sexual harassment at work violates a woman’s right to equality at the workplace and hence her constitutional rights. Breaking a new ground in jurisprudence, he specifically ruled that his order would hold the field till Parliament passed such a law. Eventually, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2012, but in some crucial respects, the legislation does a disservice to the spirit of the Vishakha guidelines.

Like the Vishakha order in the past, his recent recommendations – those which have been enacted and those which have not -- will remain a powerful weapon for the women’s movement in the months and years to come. No less significant was his contribution to the fight for human rights and rule of law, which are so much under attack today. As chairperson of the HRC, his intervention in Gujarat after the 2002 massacres was a source of discomfiture to the Narendra Modi government. In an interview with the Tehelka magazine, he said “Reparation, rehabilitation, identification of perpetrators and assurance of non-repetition are pre-requisite for reconciliation” adding “unless complete justice is done, there is no point in reconciliation”. He categorically held, “there is no question of forget and forgive”, and on PM Vajpayee’s role, he said, “He could have stepped in to monitor the situation and issue directives to the competent authorities, but he did not even comment.”

His recommendation in the recent report, that a man charge-sheeted for rape should be debarred from fighting elections till his name is cleared by the court, is also right on target. Many people complained that Verma was exceeding his brief, and the Law Minister (who would soon be removed for his gross misconduct) represented the entire political class when he said that at least conviction from one court should be there before somebody can be debarred from fighting election. Justice Verma’s response during an interview was:

“You see, the usual argument is that political rivals will first falsify the case. … Well, court is an independent entity, so once court has taken cognizance of an offence, which means there is a prima facie case for the accused to answer. Now once that stage is reached do we have dearth of desirable people, and much better people who can replace a person with dubious antecedents and when there are two conflicting interests? One is the personal or individual interest, and the other is the public interest. Naturally the public interest must outweigh … unless you exclude from the electoral foray persons with doubtful antecedents how will the desirable people come? And that is how the electoral laws are also relevant in this context. ... If you have murderers and rapists deciding the laws related to women, they won’t do anything against their vested interests.”

Justice Verma also did not hesitate to turn the mirror on his own fraternity when he favoured a separate mechanism to make High Court and Supreme Court judges accountable for misconduct.

Some of his verdicts were, however, disappointing. In the Ayodhya land dispute, he ruled that acquiring the property of a mosque did not constitute an abridgement of a Muslim’s right to freedom of religious belief and practice. In 1996, while setting aside the Bombay High Court verdict scrapping the election of Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi to the Maharashtra Assembly, Justice Verma said that Hindutva depicted “a way of life which cannot be assumed to mean and be equated with narrow fundamentalist Hindu religious bigotry.” This verdict provided a boost to Hindutva hatemongers, but Justice Verma himself would later say that it had been misinterpreted by them.

As Chief Justice of India, Justice Verma heard the Jain Hawala case, in which it was held that notings in a diary containing initials of some people did not amount to a piece of evidence, as a result of which most of the accused political bigwigs like LK Advani whose names figured in the Hawala diaries, escaped conviction. But even that verdict did leave a legacy that is helping to confront corruption today. In the backdrop of the CBI’s reluctance to proceed against powerful political leaders, Justice Verma realised that even an order directing the CBI to do its lawful duty (the writ of mandamus) would not suffice. He devised a path-breaking piece of jurisprudence – the writ of continuing mandamus -- which enabled the Court to not only direct investigation, but to monitor it continuously to ensure that the CBI was safe from interference from high authorities. The CBI director was specifically mandated to report to no one other than the Court, and to take his instructions only from the Court. Since then, this instrument has been repeatedly used by the Supreme Court and High Courts to try and ensure the independence of the CBI, and we are seeing it being used today in the Coal-gate scam case. For the same purpose, the Chief Justice also devised a method for appointment of the director of the CBI by a panel of independent constitutional functionaries.

Looking back at Justice Verma’s body of work, the common point that stands out in most of his landmark cases – perhaps most remarkably in the latest report – was the creative and courageous extension of the limits of the existing laws, legal customs, constitutional provisions, international covenants and fundamental principles of jurisprudence to devise novel ways of ensuring delivery of justice even in the most challenging of circumstances. In his own way JSV thus strived to make India a better place to live in, and that from within a judiciary which is very much a part of the reactionary bourgeois-landlord state.

This is how he paid touching tribute to the Delhi braveheart:

“We ended the report by paying tribute to her and of course the others who have responded. What I would like to say is, well no one can put back the clock. She can’t be brought back, but she has been immortalised by the aftermath, that her life has not gone in vain, in the sense she has lost her life, but then most likely it’s going to protect the lives of so many other women, and that I think is one of the greatest achievements for anyone …. that way she is the icon for this entire exercise and all the good that happens as a result of that, will be, as I said, the real tribute to her memory.”

Today on behalf of the fighting women and youth of India, indeed of the whole people of India, we pay our tributes to Justice Verma – a symbol of selfless service and probity in public life. We also take this opportunity to extend our condolences to his friends, relatives and above all the two other members of the committee and his youthful teammates (the youngest being his granddaughter, a student in Oxford, about the age of the Delhi braveheart) but for whose commitment and voluntary hard work the historic report would not have seen the light of the day so early.

Ashgar Ali Engineer

Renowned progressive scholar and reformer Ashgar Ali Engineer passed away in Mumbai after a prolonged illness. He was 74.

Born in Salumbar, Rajasthan, in a Dawoodi Bohra Amil (priest) family March 10, 1939, Engineer received early training in Islamic scholarship. A civil engineer, he worked in the Brihan Mumbai Corporation (BMC) before voluntarily retiring and plunging into the movement for social reform within his community.

Disturbed by the growth of communal forces, he dedicated his life to the pursuit of communal harmony. He was at the forefront of the struggle to resist communal violence in Mumbai and ensure friendship and harmony between the Hindu and Muslim communities. He painstakingly studied the phenomenon of communal violence and was foremost among the scholar-activists who combated this phenomenon. He was also a staunch advocate of women’s equality and rights. On some occasions he even faced violence from fundamentalists within his own community. He was a prolific writer, wielding his pen on the subject of the rights of women and against communalism and fundamentalism.

His death is a huge loss to the progressive and secular movement, which will always draw strength and inspiration from his legacy and his writings.

Liberation Archive