Originally Published 2013-02-16 00:00:00 Published on Feb 16, 2013
The recommendations of the Verma Committee establishing a link between the urgent need for electoral reforms and gender justice is a novel recommendation in terms of ensuring that candidates / legislators are more gender sensitive.
Justice Verma Committee Report and the need for engendering electoral process
The Justice Verma Committee, formed in the aftermath of the brutal gang rape in Delhi to study amendments to criminal law, has underlined the importance of electoral reforms as one of the key areas to secure gender justice in India.

Reform of the criminal justice system in India is based on the integrity of the legislators i.e. the legislators themselves do not have serious charges pending against them. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, 24 percent of the elected representatives in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections had criminal cases against them and 16 percent of the elected representatives were charged with heinous crimes. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, 30 percent of the elected representatives had criminal cases against them and 17 percent of the elected representatives were charged with heinous crimes. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, six candidates charged with rape were given tickets by political parties and 34 contesting candidates were charged with crimes constituting violence against women. The Committee has observed that the Election Commission of India had recommended twice that candidates charged with offences punishable with imprisonment of 5 years or more should be disqualified from contesting elections. This proposal was ignored by the Parliament twice.

The above-mentioned statistics and the response of the Parliament to a more gender sensitive legislature are clearly indicative of the fact that the lawmakers and political parties have both expressed a lack of concern for gender justice. In such a scenario, electoral reforms are essential to secure gender justice in the long run. The presence of such legislators in the Parliament and state assemblies does not bode well for the future of democracy.

Legislative changes suggested by the Committee

The Verma Committee has recommended the amendment of the Representation of People Act, 1951. Under the current provisions of the Act, candidates charged with crimes connected to terrorism, secularism, untouchabiltity, fairness of elections, sati and dowry are disqualified from contesting elections. The Committee has recommended that the disqualification provisions should be extended to those for committing sexual offences. Filing of charge sheet and cognizance by the court should be considered sufficient for disqualification of a candidate under the Act. The Committee has also suggested that candidates against whom charges have been filed with respect to offences against women should be debarred from fighting elections for at least six years from the time of release from jail. The Committee has also suggested to the Election Commission of India that they must direct all candidates against whom charges are pending, to give progress reports in their criminal cases every three months by exercising their plenary powers. Furthermore, candidates who fail to disclose a charge or the commission of an offence ought to be disqualified according to the report.

Role of political parties

The political parties in India are registered with the Election Commission of India under Section 29 A of the Representation of People Act, 1951. There are no legislations in India which govern the internal mechanism of political parties to ensure that candidates accused of criminal charges are denied tickets to contest elections. The Committee in its report also noted that "there is no record of instances where political parties may have refused nomination for candidates on the ground of criminal conduct". The Committee recommended the need for a comprehensive law regulating the internal functioning of political parties which must include provisions for the criteria for admission into the parties that debars nomination for candidates accused of violence against women.

It is very ironical to note that in spite of the recent incident of a brutal gang-rape no political party in India has come out with a comprehensive code/internal policies regarding elected representatives accused of crimes against women. Many statements have been made regarding legislations and policies by parliamentarians in all political parties but any concrete action is yet to be taken. Secondly, there is no code of conduct within the political parties governing the conduct of parliamentarians with respect to being gender sensitive in their duty as representatives of the citizens (especially comments/remarks by elected parliamentarians disparaging towards women).

Another instance of the lack of gender-sensitiveness amongst India’s lawmakers and political parties is the "The Women’s Reservation Bill" which is yet to be passed in Lok Sabha though the bill was first drafted in the Lok Sabha in 1996. India ranks 109 in the world classification of Women in National Parliaments, with 11 per cent in the Lower House and 10.6 in the Upper House. Electoral reforms must also include within its purview more representation of women at all levels of the representative government as enumerated in the provisions of the Women’s Reservation Bill. Availability of more public space to women to articulate their concerns are likely to bring about incrementally a societal change in perceptions of women and a more liberal outlook.

International best practices

Election laws in the developed countries, especially the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, do not bar candidates contesting elections on the basis of whether there are charges of sexual offences against them. In this respect, the recommendations of the Committee are different from those of the developed countries which debar candidates from contesting elections only if they are under incarceration. Candidates who have been convicted of criminal offences (includes sexual offences) in the past are not allowed to contest elections for a certain period of time (e.g. in the United Kingdom, it is 5 years). On the other hand, most political parties do subscribe to an internal code of conduct which ensures that candidates through their words and deeds advocate a gender sensitive environment.

The recommendations of the Verma Committee establishing a link between the urgent need for electoral reforms and gender justice is a novel recommendation in terms of ensuring that candidates contesting elections/elected legislators are more gender sensitive as opposed to advocating only empowerment of women. The focus is on ensuring that the political parties who field candidates are also held accountable in advancing a more gender sensitive environment - a practice prevalent in the developed countries like United States and United Kingdom. A legislative body comprising of legislators who themselves have been accused of heinous crimes cannot be an appropriate forum for passing effective criminal law amendments. The innovative suggestion of debarring candidates who have only been charged with sexual offences and not convicted is only to be found in the Indian context, where the judicial process is very slow.

(The writer is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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