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Steering India towards change

Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma, who died on Monday, has left an indelible impression on the collective conscious of the entire nation. Not only for the seminal Anti-rape report, also known as the Justice Verma Committee Report, a humongous and commendable piece of work of over 630 pages of closely scrutinised recommendations that was filed in just 29 days, the former chief justice of India was also a person of incredible integrity and some radical ideas, that were later found to be far ahead of his times. Verma’s death at the age of 80 has left an unfillable void in the matrix of Indian extra-judicial, political and civil activism that salvaged the sagging morale of the country at a time when the very foundations of India’s ethical and moral edifices were called into question. Justice JS Verma, who headed the three-member panel, came up with such sweeping changes to ensure women’s safety in India that the pillars of establishment were shaken by the gale storm of its impact. At a time when the nation, and particularly the national capital, are burning with justified anger against the cavalier attitude of the political classes and the penolegal institutions, when the escalation of the number of rape cases against women and children is sending shock waves throughout the country, it was the revolutionary influence of the JVC report that further empowered the mass uprising as protesters stormed the streets of the city. As a consequence, the government was compelled to pass the Anti-rape bill, even though it was a watered down version of the groundbreaking JVC panel suggestions.

The ‘architect of a stronger, more-extensive anti-rape law’ in the country had, however, more feathers in his cap, besides sketching the blueprint of the upgraded and more sweeping law. It was perhaps the crowning glory on an illustrious career that included landmark judgments interspersed with crucial interventions. His first watershed judicial verdict to boost women’s rights came in the renowned Vishakha case of 1997, when the Supreme Court of India put down the guidelines to check sexual harassment at workplace, making the important observation that such indignities within professional space contribute to inequality and breach of women’s constitutional rights. In addition, Verma ruled in the Ayodhya land dispute that acquiring property of a mosque was not an abridgement of a Muslim’s right to freedom of religious belief and practice. Further, in 1996, the Verma bench set aside a Bombay HC verdict scrapping the election of Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi to the Maharashtra Assembly, and made the famous statement that Hindutva ‘depicted a way of life which cannot be assumed to mean and be equated with narrow fundamentalist Hindu religious bigotry.’ Another milestone came in the form of the Jain Hawala case, in which he famously dismissed a diary containing details of persons accused as a viable evidence that could testify in court. Verma also turned the lens of inspection on his own fraternity and advocated accountability from eminent members of the judiciary.
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