Parliament proceedings | Lok Sabha passes Bills to replace British-era criminal laws

New laws are designed for the next 100 years, will remove colonial imprint, says Home Minister; terrorism included in a separate category; sedition dropped; mob lynching to invite death penalty

December 20, 2023 07:15 pm | Updated December 21, 2023 05:35 pm IST - New Delhi

Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and others in the Lok Sabha on December 20, 2023. Photo: Sansad TV via PTI

Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and others in the Lok Sabha on December 20, 2023. Photo: Sansad TV via PTI

The Lok Sabha on Wednesday passed three amended Bills that seek to repeal and replace criminal laws which date back to colonial times. This criminal law reform brings terrorism offences into a general crime law for the first time, drops the crime of sedition, and makes mob lynching punishable by death.

The Bharatiya Nyaya (Second) Sanhita Bill (BNSS) will replace the Indian Penal Code, 1860; the Bharatiya Sakshya (Second) Bill (BSS) will replace the Indian Evidence Act, 1872; and the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha (Second) Sanhita Bill (BNSSS) will replace the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898. All three were discussed and passed with a voice-vote, in the absence of the majority of Opposition members from INDIA bloc parties, as 97 of them have been suspended during this session.

Home Minister Amit Shah said that the three Bills stressed justice rather than punishment, and have been designed to last for the next century, keeping technological advancements in mind. “This is a pure Indian law after removing all the British imprints. As long as we are in power, we cannot become a police State,” the Minister said.

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He moved an amendment to the BNSS, which will exclude doctors from criminal prosecution for death due to medical negligence, and will make hit-and-run accident cases punishable by ten years imprisonment.

‘No sympathy for terrorists’

Noting that more than one lakh people have been killed in terror attacks across the country over the past 75 years, Mr. Shah said that the BNSS had, for the first time, defined terrorism and included it as a separate category in the general crime law.

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“Some members pointed out that UAPA [the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act] already exists. But in places where they were in power, they never invoked UAPA and those who committed acts of terrorism escaped under the provisions of general law,” Mr. Shah said. “We have shut the doors for such people to escape punishment by including terrorism in the criminal law. Terrorism is the biggest enemy of human rights. Such people should get the harshest of punishment. This is not Congress or British rule, how can you defend terrorists?” he asked.

Mr. Shah insisted that there was no scope for misuse of the terror provisions in the BNSS, but claimed that there was undue fear which made some Opposition MPs oppose the laws. “I insist that this fear should persist. There should be no sympathy for people who commit terrorist acts,” he said.

Earlier in the debate, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal, while speaking about Punjabi youth who took to militancy swayed by emotions, claimed that the two men who had jumped inside the Lok Sabha chamber on December 13 had also been affected by their emotions on the issues of unemployment, Manipur violence, and farmers’ rights. The two men, along with four associates, have been booked under UAPA, among other charges. The SAD leader also flagged the absence of a majority of the Opposition members, saying that key Bills should not be passed in such a manner.

Rajdroha vs deshdroha

The Home Minister said that sedition has been repealed in the new law. “We have replaced an individual with the country. Rajdroha (sedition or offence against the government) has been replaced with deshdroha (offence against the nation or country). Gandhi, Tilak, Patel all went to jail under this particular British law, yet it was never scrapped by the Opposition when they were in power. It continued all these years,” he said.

“[AIMIM MP Asaduddin] Owaisi ji is thinking that we have merely changed the name of sedition. I want to say that this is an independent country. Nobody will be sent to jail for criticising the government, but you cannot say anything against the country or do anything against the interests of the country. If you harm the flag or the property of the country, you will be sent to jail,” Mr. Shah said.

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‘Muslims, Dalits will be hurt’

Earlier, Mr. Owaisi said that the new laws would impact minority and underprivileged communities the most, adding that they did not have any safeguards against police excess and fabricated evidence. “Most undertrial prisoners are Adivasi, Dalits and Muslims. The conviction rate of Muslim inmates is 16% and their population is 14%. As many as 30% detenues in jails are Muslims. 76% backward class, Dalits and religious minorities are on death-row. You are reforming [the law] for the powerful; this will not benefit the poor,” Mr. Owaisi said.

He pointed out that Clause 187 of the BNSSS permits police custody of up to 90 days, as against the 15-day custody allowed till now. The law also prevents any third party from filing mercy petitions on behalf of convicts on death-row.

Mr. Owaisi added that it was an irony that people accused of terror charges themselves were also speaking in Parliament on the Bill. The BJP MP from Bhopal, Pragya Singh Thakur, faces charges under UAPA, with regard to her alleged involvement in the 2008 Malegaon blast where six people were killed. She spoke during the debate on the Bill, claiming that the British-era laws had been misused to torture her in police custody for 13 days.

‘Definition of terror is too broad’

Krishna Devarayalu Lavu of the YSR Congress also objected to the clause permitting 90 days of police custody. He noted that recently, three contentious farm laws had been withdrawn after farmers staged a peaceful protest. “They protested so their rights can be taken care of. If you invoke sections pertaining to attack on sovereignty of the country, it does not make any sense. The definition of terrorist acts is too broad,” the YSR Congress MP said.

Mr. Shah, however, insisted that the total police custody would only be 15 days. “If, after the first seven days of police questioning, someone gets admitted in hospital, the person will have to appear before the police for another eight days after recovering or getting discharged. Meanwhile, courts can also grant bail,” he said.

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