The rage at Raisina Hill seems to have finally moved the government.
In an announcement late Saturday — six days after the brutal gangrape of a young woman on a moving bus — home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde indicated the maximum penalty for rape could be enhanced to death “in the rarest of rare” cases.
Reaching out to the furious thousands, Shinde said the government shared their pain and anguish. “I am a father of three daughters, so is my colleague (MoS for home affairs) RPN Singh.”
He also announced the suspension of five policemen for negligence in the case, and promised that even senior officers would not be spared if it was found they had not taken steps.
However, Delhi Police officers later clarified three were suspended in the gangrape case and eight for dereliction of duty during a surprise check by Union home secretary RK Singh.
In addition, Shinde announced setting up of a commission to review “the response to this shocking crime” and to outline steps to be taken in the future.
The announcement came after Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s nudge to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Shinde to take “visible, stern and immediate” action. Singh and Shinde also held detailed discussions.
“The government will take immediate steps for amendment of the criminal law for enhanced and more effective punishment in the rarest of rare cases of sexual assault,” Shinde declared.
Asked if this meant the noose, information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari suggested the phase "rarest of rare" was only used in a particular context, an oblique reference to Supreme Court judgments on invoking the death penalty in the rarest of rare cases of murder.
Government sources indicated the home ministry didn't want to jump the gun before getting legal opinion and a sense of the support the move would evoke from political parties. If there are problems, the ministry could make imprisonment for the rest of the rape convict's life the enhanced punishment.
Urging the protesters to go back home, Shinde said "the government respects the right of legitimate protest" and that he felt "bad" the police had to use force, but added that what the protesters had done was also seen by all. He promised to inquire into the police action, though.
The minister firmly ruled out convening a special session of Parliament to discuss the issue, a demand raised by leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj in a telephone call to the PM earlier in the day.
"I don't think there is a need for a special session, especially when Parliament has concluded a session just a couple of days ago," he said.