Justice Verma: A judge who fought for women’s rights

Justice Verma

With the sad demise of Justice Verma, the Indian women’s movement has lost one of its most noble defenders

By Team FI

Justice J S Verma, the much respected jurist who died of multiple organ failure on Monday at the age of 80, was cremated yesterday with state honour in New Delhi. He was the former Chief Justice of India and ex-Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

On behalf of the women’s movement, Vrinda Grover (lawyer), Suneeta Dhar, Madhu Mehra and others attended the funeral at the Lodhi Road crematorium and paid tribute to the great human rights defender.

Noted women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes told FeministsIndia that she is honoured to have interacted with Justice Verma. “Justice Verma will always be remembered for his humility, dedication and commitment towards women. Three landmark decisions in his career paved the way for women’s legal rights. His Vishaka Judgment ensured security to women at the workplace in the absence of a law. As Chairperson of the NHRC, he ordered the retrial and transfer of the Bilkis Banu case and lastly and most significantly he prepared the progressive and practical Verma Committee Report post the Delhi rape.”

Justice Verma began his legal career in 1955. He was responsible for several landmark judgments that made him the face of judicial activism in the country. In May 1997, during his term as the Chief Justice of India the Supreme Court of India adopted the Charter “Restatement of Values of Judicial Life”. This charter, served as a code of conduct, a guide for the judiciary of India to be strong, independent and impartial.

In 1997, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he passed a landmark judgement in the case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan. It gave the country its first definition and framework for sexual harassment at the work place, recognizing sexual violence as an abuse of a woman’s constitutional and human rights.

Three landmark decisions in his career paved the way for women’s legal rights

After retiring from the Supreme Court, Justice Verma served as the chairperson of the NHRC from November 1999 to January 2003. In the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, he led an NHRC team that visited Gujarat from March 19 to 22, 2002. The team submitted a report on April 1, 2002 which was welcomed by human rights groups in the country. In an interview to Tehelka magazine in 2008, Justice Verma unequivocally stated that NHRC had passed two orders on April 1 and May 31, 2002, which had “indicted the state government of Gujarat. In the April order, the NHRC clearly stated that the government is doing little to stop the violation of fundamental rights to life and dignity of the people in Gujarat.”

Renowned feminist economist Devaki Jain stated that India has lost “a great luminary and the noblest of human beings.” She described his tenure as the Chairperson of NHRC as one of the glorious periods for those who were working in the field of human rights in India. “He was always accessible and willing to respond to ideas and positions which were not ‘associated with important people’. Justice Verma opened his mind and the doors of NHRC, with what can be called ‘immediate effect’ to a proposal I made for what at that time we called ‘Indigenizing Human Rights Education’,” said Devaki Jain.

Activist Sheba George commented, “He will be remembered for his landmark NHRC report on the 2002 violence in Gujarat and also for the work he did to end violence against women after the gruesome gang rape in Delhi last December.”

Last year, in December, the brutal gang rape of a young woman and her subsequent death as a result of her injuries had the country and its capital engulfed in protest and anger. The government appointed a three member panel headed by Justice Verma to formulate recommendations to create stronger laws against sexual violence. The Verma Commission took in suggestions and opinions not only from women and human rights groups in the country but also individuals across the nation. Within 29 days, a 630 page report was submitted to the government. The report went above and beyond the call of duty by not just recommending changes to the current laws but framing a comprehensive gender policy.

Though the report was applauded by women’s and human rights groups in the country, the government response with the Criminal Law Amendment 2013 came as a letdown by ignoring some of the key points made in the Verma Commission report.

Justice Verma is survived by his wife and two daughters.

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