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Panel for criminal law reforms faced flak in 2020 for opacity; Congress demands wider consultations

Despite demands from stakeholders, the committee also has not made the report of public consultations available on its website, experts pointed out.

NEW DELHI: Even as the Centre has proposed three new legislations to revamp the colonial-era criminal laws, the Criminal Law Reform Committee, which looked into the reform of the laws, faced severe criticism from several quarters for the ambiguity in its methodology and non-transparency after it was set up in May 2020.

The Home Ministry was also widely criticised by the legal fraternity for setting up a private committee, bypassing the law commission and criminal law experts, and entrusting the job to academics. Despite demands from stakeholders, the committee also has not made the report of public consultations available on its website, experts pointed out.

The panel, constituted during the Covid-19 lockdown, had drawn flak from several retired judges, bureaucrats and women activists, who flagged the lack of transparency, representation of women, and marginalised castes and minorities. After facing flak, the panel later included a female member.

Many have also expressed concerns over the committee’s time limit to propose the reforms. The first five law commissions took more than 10 years to change one-third of the CrPC. Thomas Babington Macaulay, who chaired the first law commission, had drafted the IPC in 1837, more than two decades before it became law.

Though Prof Ranbir Singh (former VC of National Law University, Delhi) held the position as the chairperson of the committee initially, Prof Srikrishna Deva Rao replaced him later. Other members include NLU VC GS Bajpai, Balraj Chauhan of NLU Jabalpur, senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, former judge GP Thareja, Praveen Sinha and Dr Padmini Singh.

Legal experts including former SC Judge Madan Lokur, ex-Delhi HC Chief Justice AP Shah, and ex-judge RS Sodhi, wrote to the committee in July 2020.

“We are concerned that, unlike previous efforts of similar magnitude, this committee does not consist of full-time members. The members continue to discharge their full professional commitments alongside their work on this committee,” they pointed out.

Besides defining terrorism for the first time, the changes aimed at transforming the country’s criminal justice system include provisions for maximum capital punishment for mob lynching, sexual assault of minors, maximum imprisonment of 20 years for all types of gangrape and community service as one of the punishments for first-time petty offences.

Congress calls for wider consultations

The Congress on Sunday called for wider consultations involving experts and the general public on the three legislations that seek to overhaul India’s criminal justice system.

In a statement, Congress general secretary Randeep Surjewala said that on August 11, without any prior intimation, public consultation or inviting suggestions from legal experts and other stakeholders, the Modi government introduced three Bills from its “black magic hat”, thereby restructuring the entire criminal law apparatus in a “clandestine, hidden and opaque manner.”

In a detailed analysis, Surjewala said that Shah had “lied and misled” on many points.

“The introductory remarks of the Home Minister gave away the fact that Amit Shah is himself out of depth, ignorant and oblivious to the entire exercise,” the Congress leader said.

“Other than some credit seeking and point scoring in desperation, a hidden exercise, away from the public glare or stakeholders’ suggestions and wisdom, cannot serve the public purpose of reforming the criminal law structure of the country,” Surjewala said.

After an extensive “scrutiny” of existing and proposed laws, he said the detailed definitions of terrorism and terrorist acts already exist since the time of Indira Gandhi and “the definition of terrorists in the IPC is an eyewash.”

On the issue of FIR against mob lynching, claimed to be brought for the first time, he alleged that Shah has given a “huge concession” to mob lynchers.

“The BJP government has watered down the lowest punishment for mob lynching to seven years (under BNS, 2023), whereas the lowest punishment under IPC for such crime was life imprisonment,” he claimed.

Surjewala claimed that the issue of sexual assault on minors, all provisions already exist and so does the punishment of 20 years for gang rape.

Shah had introduced the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS) Bill, 2023; Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita (BNSS) Bill, 2023; and Bharatiya Sakshya (BS) Bill, 2023 that will replace the Indian Penal Code, 1860, Criminal Procedure Act, 1898, and Indian Evidence Act, 1872, respectively.

Congress MP Manish Tewari has also called for wider consultations on the bills.

“Some of these Acts, especially CrPC, have state amendments – given that law and order is a state subject. Each provision in each of these enactments has been extensively litigated over the past 150-100 years and the interpretation of each provision has been settled by judicial pronouncements by the privy council, federal court, Supreme Court, various high courts and in some cases even by subordinate courts,” Tewari said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

These bills have serious implications on the fundamental rights enshrined in Part -III of the Constitution of India especially the Golden Triangle of Rights – Article-14, 19 and 21, he asserted.

Former Congress leader Kapil Sibal also alleged that the government talks about ending colonial-era laws but wants to impose “dictatorship” through such legislation.

The Rajya Sabha MP and former law minister called on the government to take back the three bills, 1872, alleging that if such laws become a reality, they would “imperil the future” of the country.

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