Colonial yoke or bureaucratic insouciance?

Updated - April 20, 2016 03:58 am IST

Published - September 07, 2014 01:27 am IST

‘Blame the British’ is an oft-invoked argument when the subject of India’s outdated laws comes up for discussion. But 68 years since Independence, can we still afford to parrot that old line?

Moiz Tundawala, a doctoral researcher in law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, feels that it is unfair to blame just the colonial hangover when several opportunities for reforming the legal system in India have been wasted by bureaucrats and judges. He points to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as an example.

“This law pronounces illegal carnal intercourse against the order of nature, making criminals of gays and transgender persons. But why was a progressive judgment of the Delhi High Court, which struck off this section, upturned later by the Supreme Court? If we continue to bear the burden of colonial era laws, we only have ourselves to blame,” he said.

Though the Constitution-making exercise in India was inspired by the British and other western systems, it was nevertheless an independent process. But the same did not happen with the laws in India that were handed down from the British, Mr. Tundawala said. He felt that several laws enacted in the post-colonial era smacked of a colonial mindset. “Take for instance laws such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. All of them aim to control and subjugate a population with little regard for their democratic aspirations. So what this country needs is a radical overhaul of the judicial and criminal justice system.”

If we continue to bear the burden of colonial era laws, we only have ourselves to blame.

The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, continues to presume the state to be the primary owner of telecommunications networks, though the sector was privatised long ago. “The provisions on surveillance in this Act are from a colonial era and are heavy-handed, allowing for spying even without a court warrant. Up until 1998, it spoke of ‘the Provinces’ in some provisions instead of ‘India,’” Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director, Centre for Internet and Society, said.

The Police Act, 1861, is another law that has often been criticised for perpetuating colonial-era institutional practices. Despite numerous commissions and Supreme Court orders advocating reform measures, progress in changing this law has been slow. Lawyer-activist Maja Daruwala, who heads the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi, said those in establishment were very comfortable with the policing law and the power that it gave them. “When governments find it convenient to use policing as a means to hold down the population, why would they bother to amend it?”

Ms. Daruwala said the main fault lay with the definition of police duties and the overall structure and the spirit of the law itself. “The police in India are often accused of bias against certain communities, such as Dalits and tribal people. This is because the issue of need for diversity in policing in a democratic country such as India has not been addressed by the law. In the U.K., the design of the policing law changed gradually with the changing needs of the population, but this has not been the case here,” she said.

Section 124-A of the IPC on sedition is another provision in the statute book that is seen as promoting the colonial mindset. Several instances of the abuse of sedition law exist in independent India. In 2010, for instance, the BJP government in Chhattisgarh used the law against activist Binayak Sen for which he was imprisoned, only to be let off by the Supreme Court later which found him innocent. S. Prabakaran, Member, Bar Council of India, and president of the Tamil Nadu Advocates’ Association, said it was shameful that India continued to keep the law that was decried by none other than Mahatma Gandhi. “This law was brought in by the British to quell the Independence movement in India. Why have we not bothered to repeal it?”

Efforts to reform the criminal justice system have been fraught with challenges. The Justice Malimath committee, set up in 2000, had recommended reforms in the system, which were met with resistance from the human rights lobby. Cautioning the present government against any sweeping changes that would tinker with the basic structure of the law, V. Suresh, national general secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, said: “The Malimath committee failed in its mission because it involved an effort to change the entire structure of the law itself, which upholds presumption of innocence, burden of proof on the state, and rules on admissible evidence, in order to improve conviction rates. No doubt, it was met with resistance by the legal fraternity as the idea was to do away with essential checks and balances in the legal system.”

(With additional reporting by K.T. Sangameswaran in Chennai)

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