THREE bills have been introduced in parliament to replace the existing criminal laws – The Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act. The home minister, Amit Shah, announced that these bills are meant to overhaul the colonial period laws. The names given to the bills are: the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhiti Bill, the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita Bill and the Bharatiya Sakshya Bill, which are incomprehensible to people in the non-Hindi states, particularly south India, and supposed to indicate that the colonial legacy will be given up.
These bills were prepared on the basis of the recommendations of a committee set-up by the home ministry in May 2020 to review the existing criminal laws and to suggest reforms in them. However, it must be pointed out that at no time were the recommendations of this committee been placed for wider consultations before drafting the bills, which have been introduced in parliament.
It is necessary to carefully go through the various clauses of the bills, which are supposed to be sweeping away the colonial hangover and bringing reforms to the criminal justice system.
Some problematic definitions and draconian provisions are already evident. Amit Shah claimed that the offence of sedition (section 124A of IPC) has been done away with. This is true. While this section has been deleted and terms like “causing disaffection against the government” have been removed, it is replaced by a section targeting speech, writing or any form of communication that incites separatist and subversive activities. Section 150 in part VII of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhiti Bill states that, whoever encourages feelings of separatist activities or endangers sovereignty, unity and integrity of India etc, shall be punished with imprisonment for life or imprisonment which may extend to seven years.
In the earlier section 124A of the IPC, the punishment is either life imprisonment or three years in jail. The new section enhances the minimum punishment to seven years.
In some senses, the new clause replacing the offence of sedition is more wide ranging and draconian. There are other clauses from the colonial times like “criminal conspiracy” which are retained. This was brought in by the British rulers to target “political conspiracies” against them.
There are other issues about how inclusion of mob lynching has been done and the non-inclusion of marital rape as an offence. Criminal defamation, which is used to intimidate the media has not been decriminalised. Similarly, the regressive offence of blasphemy has been retained.
There are many other aspects of the three bills which need to be studied and discussed. The manner in which the government has gone about bringing such a major revamping of the criminal laws is cavalier and smacks of an authoritarian attitude.
The CPI(M) stand is that it is not enough to send the bills to the standing committee of parliament. Before that, the bills must be put for wider consultations and discussions with state governments, political parties, jurists and the public at large.
(August 16, 2023)
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