The New York Times International Herald Tribune
Niharika Mandhana

India’s Supreme Court on Friday asked the government to consider fast-tracking trials of lawmakers who are facing criminal charges, lawyers said, after activists filed a petition demanding that legislators accused of abusing women be disqualified from public office.

Six state legislators have charges of rape against them, and 36 have been charged with other crimes against women, according to a Dec. 20 report by the Association for Democratic Reforms.

The Supreme Court rejected activists’ demands that these lawmakers be suspended from their offices when charged, saying the court was not empowered to make such a decision. The activists’ demands were part of two sweeping public interest lawsuits reviewed by the court on Friday, filed in response to a recent gang rape in New Delhi that resulted in the death of a 23-year-old woman.

The government has announced several measures in response to outrage over the gang rape in recent weeks, including faster courts, women’s hot lines and an initiative to review the country’s rape laws. Civil society groups and activists, however, are demanding broader reforms.

The Supreme Court on Friday asked the government to respond to several requests, including the establishment of fast-track courts in all states to try sex offenses, the formulation of judicial norms for the payment of compensation to rape victims, the filling of vacancies in police forces, the creation of a national toll-free help line for victims of rape and child abuse and the creation of a registry of convicted sexual offenders to be circulated among police forces.

The court rejected a demand for a reduction in security for high-profile figures like politicians and diplomats, which many say reduces police protection for other citizens, and for the investigation of crimes against women by female officers only.

“We have asked for many systemic changes,” said Promilla Shankar, one of the petitioners and a former government officer who worked in India’s administrative services. “What is needed is a complete overhaul of the judicial and governance system.”

India’s top court has already given directions on many of the changes activists are demanding. In November, while considering a case on “Eve teasing,” a term used in South Asia to mean sexual harassment, the court directed the government to deploy female police officers in all busy public places; held the managers of places like educational institutions, worship houses and movie theaters responsible for preventing sexual abuse; and required operators of public vehicles to report cases of harassment to the police.

In Ms. Shankar’s petition, the Supreme Court was asked to suspend “tainted” police officers, government officials and members of Parliament and legislative assemblies who are facing rape or murder charges. The petition also demanded that the trials of these high-profile suspects be expedited, and if they are found guilty, they should be dismissed.

In India, a lawmaker convicted by a lower court can keep his position by appealing the decision in a higher court. These cases often continue for years, if not decades.

“Lawmakers should be people of a certain character and caliber,” Ms. Shankar said. “What can the people expect if their representatives have criminal cases pending against them?”

Activists have also objected to political parties who field candidates with criminal charges pending. In the 2009 general elections, six candidates, from various parties, had been charged with rape, and in the last five years, political parties have nominated 27 candidates with rape charges against them, according to the report by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a nonprofit that works for electoral reforms.

These cases represent a “minuscule number” of actual crimes, said Anil Bairwal, the organization’s national coordinator, as a large number of such crimes are not reported, and politicians are able to use their considerable influence to prevent prosecution.

In an effort to “name and shame” the accused politicians, the report includes their names and political parties and details the charges against them.

“These are the people in whose hands the people have given the country, so to speak,” said Mr. Bairwal. “This is not a small matter.”

Petitions filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms over a decade ago resulted in an order that requires candidates to declare their financial, educational and criminal background, but only those who have been convicted of a crime are disqualified from running for office. A separate petition to disallow candidates who are facing criminal charges has been pending in the courts since 2005.

“A much simpler solution is to put pressure on political parties not to have candidates who have criminal charges,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, one of the founders of the Association for Democratic Reforms. “But that is not happening in this country because of the obstinacy or shamelessness of the political parties.”

Public anger poured out in Assam this week against a Congress politician, Bikram Singh Brahma, who was accused of raping a married woman. Television footage showed a bare-chested man being beaten by a group of women shortly before his arrest. Mr. Brahma was subsequently suspended from his party.

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