The NDA government’s propensity has been to rush even important bills through Parliament;
Contemporising laws are critical to democratic governance as they reflect the thoughts of a people at a given point in time as to how to govern themselves. The Union government’s attempts to rework three importance laws that govern administration of criminal justice in this country — the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Criminal Procedure Code, (1898), 1973 and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 — and replace these with the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023, the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 2023, and the Bharatiya Sakshya Bill, 2023, are hence prima facie welcome.
As the names suggest, the old laws were made during the British Raj and passed by the British Parliament. Indian legislatures have made changes to them on a piecemeal basis, but no comprehensive overhaul was attempted except for the changes made to the Code of Criminal Procedure in 1973.
A careful reading of the drafts of these laws and an analysis of the thought that has gone into their drafting, however, do not inspire. What are the changes the laws want to introduce? The answer to this critical question remains unclear. The British had a reason to position the state and the government above the people for whom it was intended. But the Indian Republic has no such compulsions; it works under a Constitution.
The sedition law was an essential ingredient of British rule as there was a disconnect between the State and the people. The Supreme Court virtually stalled the operation of the law, but this draft seeks to reintroduce it in another form, which is more draconian, with broader definitions and harsher punishments. This is not an indication of a government enjoying the confidence of its people.
One welcome feature of the new drafts is the attempt to end the inordinate delay in investigation and decision-making in cases. There are time limits on investigation, trial and judgment. But doubts persist as to whether fixing a time frame will prove fructuous. Judges have repeatedly pointed out that lack of infrastructure cripples courts’ functioning while the unavailability of trained judges adds to the long list of pending cases. The success of the attempts to end judicial delays will depend on how the government addresses these fundamental issues.
That the English names of the laws are replaced with Hindi ones is no minor change. English has been accepted for all the official purposes of the Union. India survives as a democracy on its ability to identify an element of unity in its vast universe of diversity. Attempts to ignore the diversities and impose one among several on the rest are hardly in tune with the democratic spirit.
The three Bills will now go to the standing committee of the Union ministry of home affairs. The NDA government’s propensity has been to rush even important bills through Parliament; that practice got a welcome break here. The drafts should ideally trigger discussions across forums and the suggestions should reach the parliamentary committee, and finally, the Parliament so that the changes become more democratic, citizen-centric and reflective of the times.