What is India trying to change with revamp of colonial-era laws?

What is India trying to change with revamp of colonial-era laws?

Indian government has put forward three bills to overhaul laws implemented during British colonial period

By Anadolu staff

​​​​​​​ANKARA (AA) – The Indian government has this month introduced three bills in Parliament to repeal existing colonial-era criminal laws, a move it says aims to “prioritize citizens’ rights.”

The bills will be sent to a parliamentary standing committee for deliberations before they are put up for actual approval, likely before the before general elections next May.

The new bills bear Hindi names – Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita and Bharatiya Sakshya.

The criminal laws they aim to replace – Indian Penal Code 1860, Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 and the Indian Evidence Act 1872 – were all enacted during the British colonial era.

According to the Indian government, it took suggestions on the bills from a wide range of institutions, including 18 states, six union territories, 16 high courts and the Supreme Court.

It argues that the old laws were passed by the British and had “signs of slavery,” stressing the new legislation will remove “these signs of slavery from a total of 475 places.”

Provisions in the new bills include making mob lynching punishable by seven years imprisonment or life imprisonment or the death penalty.

They also aim to introduce community service and solitary confinement as new forms of punishment, change the controversial sedition law, and increase protection for women and minors.

Also, for the first time in India, sex on the pretext of a false promise of marriage, or employment and promotion, or false identity could become a crime.

- ‘Reform and rationalize’

In 2020, India’s Home Ministry announced a national-level committee that would review criminal laws and assess the need for reforms.

The government told Parliament in a written reply this year that previous standing committee reports had highlighted the need to “reform and rationalize” criminal laws with “comprehensive legislation … rather than bringing about piecemeal amendments.”

Addressing lawmakers last week, Home Minister Amit Shah said the existing laws were made to protect British rule, asserting that their purpose was punishment and not justice.

​​​​​​Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a former law minister, has also said the proposed changes were long overdue.

The legal tweaks are also seen as being in line with the larger push by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to remove symbols of the British colonial rule.

One of the most significant steps in that direction was the May inauguration of a new Parliament building, which replaced the previous British-era structure.

- ‘Old wine in a new bottle’

The bills have also invited criticism from many people, from lawyers to politicians, who have called for more discussions.

Rebecca John, a leading Indian lawyer specializing in criminal law, said the proposed laws are like “old wine in a new bottle.”

“There is nothing new in it,” she told Anadolu.

“I have no problem if any government wishes to review a century-old law; you need that sometimes. But what … has changed substantially? Even the language continues to be Victorian.”

John cited the sedition law as an example, which could be replaced with one that punishes “acts endangering sovereignty, unity and integrity of India.”

The government is making “tall claims that sedition has been removed as an offence,” she said.

“However, it has come in another form, probably more dangerous than the existing law,” she asserted.

Lawyer Diljeet Titus said the new laws could be a positive step and signify a progressive move toward modernizing the criminal justice system, but it is important to address the concerns being raised and ensure that they will be implemented in a fair and impartial manner.

For instance, he said there are concerns that the death penalty for rape of minors is too harsh, while marital rape has not been recognized as a crime.

The new laws are not comprehensive enough and could prove difficult to implement, he added.

M R Shamshad, another senior Indian lawyer, told Anadolu that the names of the laws are being changed, but there is “little change in the law to protect and secure citizens.”

“We are already over-legislated in most fields, including the criminal justice process. The thing we need the most in the criminal justice system is reforms in the working of police, fixing accountability on them rather than creating laws with severe punishments,” he said.

- Call for open discussions

On the political front, the main opposition Congress party has demanded more consultation on the law, including with experts and the general public.

Randeep Surjewala, the party’s general secretary, said the bills must be put up for larger public debate in order to avoid “the trap of bulldozing the entire criminal law structure without discussion.”

Experts also warn that the new laws must be carefully assessed to make sure that they are not used to target vulnerable groups, such as minorities and women.

They emphasized the need for public consultations for feedback from citizens, as well as discussions with experts from different fields, such as law, criminology and sociology, and commissioning independent studies to assess the impact of the new laws.

“The goal of these deliberations should be to ensure that the new laws are effective in reducing crime and that they do not have unintended negative consequences,” said Titus.

“The government should be willing to make changes based on the feedback that it receives during deliberations.”

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