Photo: Justice Leila Seth (Firstpost/Sandip Roy)
Editor’s Note: In the wake of the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student in New Delhi, Dec. 16, and subsequent reports of gang rapes in India, that nation's government has established a commission to strengthen the country’s anti-rape laws. Firstpost’s Sandip Roy, a New America Media contributor, interviewed a member of the new commission, octogenarian Justice Leila Seth.
KOLKATA, India--Former Chief Justice Leila Seth of the Himachal Pradesh High Court is one of the three members in the committee the government has set up to make anti-rape laws stronger.
Over 60,000 suggestions have already come in to the commission. Justice Seth, 82, said she couldn't comment on the commission's deliberations but she spoke about the issues at stake. She spoke to Firstpost’s Sandip Roy on the sidelines of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival where she'd just talked to a crowd of school children about the values embedded in India's constitution. She told them that young people had pushed the government into action, and she was thrilled by that.
Sandip Roy: Do women get a short shrift in the justice system?
Leila Seth: It's true because generally people don't treat women equally. Secondly, in the police they are very nasty to the women. The whole attitude is nasty. There are not enough policewomen, and even if there are, they are not able to exert themselves sufficiently. So they do get the short shrift. When it comes to court I can't say exactly the same. I can say the judges are pretty even-handed as far as the court goes but before that during investigation police is very, very poor.
SR: Why did you agree to be part of this commission?
LS: The only thing is, why I agreed to be part, because I felt here is an opportunity where they will take some action because they are pushed to take some action. I had written a report on sexual assault in 2000, and nothing was done and just now introduced into the Lok Sabha, [the lower house of India’s Parliament].
The Children's Act has just become law in November after 12 years. So I felt that hopefully this committee report will not go into dust, that there will be some action. At least there is some movement. And I had some experience on this aspect.
SR: What will be the process? There are already 60,000 suggestions that have come in. How will you process all that?
LS: We apply our minds [she laughs]. Point is, we don't know how many more suggestions will come in. And how many of the suggestions we will use. We apply our minds and see what comes out of it.
SR: So much of the talk has been around punishment, whether it's capital punishment or chemical castration. Is sentencing the right place to put the focus when the process to get to sentencing seems so difficult?
LS: I don't want to make any comments right now. Because I am part of this committee. We will speak through our report. That was the understanding between the three of us.
SR: Do you think the problem is not that there are no laws, but that the laws are not implemented?
LS: Absolutely right. That has been the problem all through whether it's sexual assault or corruption. It's the implementation that's at fault.
SR: What's your reaction to the comments flying around from all kinds of leaders whether it's about painted and dented women or reciting mantras?
LS: [Smiles] I told the children this as well. In today's generation you need to learn wisdom, you don't have to learn knowledge. With the Internet we have so much coming in and now. The thing we need is wisdom.
SR: What's most heartening about the reaction to the sexual violence, which is now front-page news and what are you worried about?
LS: I would say the very fact that so much has come into the newspaper is a good thing. Because it makes people sit up. Otherwise women's issues were never of any importance. Members of Parliament passed their remuneration act within two days, but then what happens to these acts? No one bothers about them. So it's good that it has got-front page media reporting bringing it forward. On the other hand, young people are reading about all these things. They are getting worried. They are getting upset. But I guess that is part of the process. What can you do?
SR: But you have said governments can only make the law. Not breaking them is our duty. So what's the role of schools here in teaching values?
LS: School is very important. We were taught moral science in school. But I said if you cannot be taught moral science, at least teach constitutional morality in school. Like the preamble [to India’s constitution], which talks about justice, liberty, equality.
But I think the home is the most important. You know most of the sexual assault cases take place within families with uncles and cousins and all much more than outside. Outside we see it. We don't see what's going on inside the home. Homes and teachers are absolutely essential here. There's no question. And to give courage to the girls so they are not afraid to speak out, because they are afraid to speak.
SR: How do you make good law in the middle of great popular outrage? What is the challenge for a government?
LS: You have to ask the government. I will be objective. What the government will do I don't know. I think they have to be circumspect. I am telling you I never allowed it to affect me, never, what was going around me, what the press was saying, what the TV was saying. I never allowed it to affect me.
SR: But the climate is such that no one even wanted to defend the accused here. Even some lawyers apparently suggested the accused be just turned over to the public.
LS: I think that everybody has a right to be defended. If no lawyer came forward they would have to be provided legal aid. Whether someone is right or wrong, or horrible crime--you must still have a lawyer. That is the law of the land.
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