It is rare that a person’s legacy feels as immediately relevant as the one left behind this week by India’s former chief justice J.S. Verma. Verma, who died on Monday of multiple organ failure at the age of 80 in the New Delhi area, was a central figure in helping the government change its antiquated antirape law after the Dec. 16 gang rape that sent India into a tailspin of street protests and public introspection. The urgency of the reforms that Verma helped usher in was on depressing display this week, as demonstrators took to the streets again over another brutal rape left a 5-year old girl fighting for her life in a New Delhi hospital.
In December, Justice Verma was appointed head of a special panel that the government convened in response to the national outrage over the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student who was attacked by six men on a moving bus in a central part of New Delhi. For several weeks, Verma and a small group of lawyers heard tens of thousands of recommendations from a wide cross section of Indian society on how to improve safety for women in India. After less than a month, the committee issued a 630-page report with detailed recommendations that called into question many social and legal conventions in India.
The report, among one of the most — if not the most — comprehensive look at the legal state of modern women’s rights in India, was widely lauded by rights groups and social activists for its vision. Verma and his colleagues recommended an overall toughening up of laws for crimes against women, including making threatening and commonplace behavior like stalking and voyeurism criminal offenses. The holistic approach of the report advocated using the law to help change aspects of India’s social structure that engender the kind of moral impunity that led to the violent death of a young women in December.
Notably, Verma did not recommend the death penalty for rape, despite widespread calls among the public at the time that the six suspects arrested for the Dec. 16 be hanged. That was overruled by the government when the revised antirape law was enacted in March, which allows for the death penalty in sexual assault that results in death or has left the victim in a vegetative state. Nor did the government employ the recommendation that marital rape be made a crime, one of several choices that led women’s groups to say the law fell short of the true spirit of reform captured by the former justice.
Verma, who began his legal career in India in the 1950s, served as chief justice in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh before becoming India’s top judge in the late 1990s. He also served as chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. In a statement issued after his death, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his condolences, praising Verma not only for his “vast understanding and knowledge of law and the many pathbreaking judgments he delivered as a judge, but also for his deep sensitivity to the concerns of the common man and his fierce commitment to the public good.”