The Indian government had in May decided to constitute a committee to recommend reforms to criminal law after country-wide consultations with law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, judiciary, advocates, academics and civil society, including media organisations. The consultation will go on for three months starting July 4. However, a group of over 500 activists, lawyers, artists, academics, journalists and other prominent persons have now expressed concerns over the committee and the exercise.
In a letter to Professor (Dr) Ranbir Singh, the chairperson of the committee and the Vice Chancellor of the National Law University, Delhi, on Thursday, the signatories said that they were ‚Äústrongly opposed to any proposal for far-reaching changes in the entire legal framework which operates around crime in this country at this moment in our country‚Äôs history.‚ÄĚ
The letter stated that given the limitations on democratic institutions as well as expression of dissent at this time, the government has pushed through measures that have far-reaching impact on the social and economic aspects of people‚Äôs lives, which would otherwise have received pushback. They added that given that the country is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions of democracy are in suspended animation right now.
‚ÄúThe very fact that the government has constituted this Committee during the pandemic speaks of its malafide. It is difficult if not impossible to believe that the criminal justice reform will end in recommendations which benefit the ordinary citizen, when such is not the case in any other reform as highlighted above,‚ÄĚ the letter says.
‚ÄúThe fact that this Committee has been set up by the Ministry of Home Affairs when there are Law Commissions to perform exactly this is also telling of the real nature of such a Committee. This is fortified by the complete lack of transparency in the failure to place in the public domain the Terms of Reference and Objective of the MHA in forming such a committee,‚ÄĚ it adds.
The signatories also expressed concern that they suspect that the committee‚Äôs intent is ‚Äúto overhaul the current criminal justice system to align it with the framework of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the National Security Act, such that the accused‚Äôs rights are further whittled away.‚ÄĚ
Both these laws have been previously criticised for handing absolute powers to the state. The UAPA defines terrorist activity and the NSA has often been used to take dissenting persons into preventive detention, which is extra-judicial confinement of a person without a charge.
The letter also objects to the timeline given to the committee. ‚ÄúIt is a mockery to envisage a re-haul of the criminal law within a period let alone granting 3 months or even 6 months. If there is a bonafide approach to criminal law reform, then the same has to be a long-drawn out process involving all sections of society and all regions of the nation. The failure to do so creates doubt as to whether this Committee is merely a rubber stamp for certain reforms already prepared by the Ministry of Home Affairs.‚ÄĚ
The letter also notes that the committee is entirely composed of male members. Apart from Dr Ranbir Singh, it has Dr GS Bajpai, a professor at NLU Delhi; Dr Balraj Chauhan, Vice-Chancellor of Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur; senior Supreme Court advocate Mahesh Jethmalani; and GP Thareja, former district and sessions judge from Delhi. It has no one from outside Delhi, no women, Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis, LGBTQ+ persons, disabled persons, no representation from human rights organisations or civil society. The consulting process is also exclusionary wherein committee members will only seek to consult with ‚Äúexperts‚ÄĚ who can communicate in English, through their website.
‚ÄúLet us not again make the same mistake and legitimise this Committee by participating in a farcical, superficial, exclusionary and dangerous process, which aims to strip us of our rights while sanctimoniously invoking the Constitution,‚ÄĚ the signatories conclude.
Examples of government pushing through questionable measures
The signatories also give other examples of the government using this time to push through measures that could otherwise spur dissent, such as several states suspending labour laws in the name of protection of business while impinging on labour rights.
‚ÄúOther labour law changes include the extension of daily hours of work, and promotion of ease of business for industries at the expense of workmen at a time when the working class has witnessed the total failure of the so-called ‚Äėwelfare state‚Äô. Not only this, but the dilution of land ownership laws has allowed for easy takeover of agricultural land by corporations.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThe role of protests and demonstrations which are a way of expression of public opinion in a vibrant democracy like India, today is in a state of suspended animation,‚ÄĚ they said.
‚ÄúIn fact, the opportunistic use of a crisis situation to dilute legislations that protect the vulnerable sections of society and to further the pro-corporate agenda of the state is flagrant. The government has rolled out a draft proposal to amend Environment Impact Assessment procedures that would place many projects outside the purview of public hearings, effectively rendering local communities voiceless in such decisions,‚ÄĚ the signatories said.
The signatories also alleged that the government is using ‚Äėshock doctrine‚Äô, a phrase coined by Naomi Klein, a Canadian social activist, which is a tactic of systematically using the public‚Äôs disorientation after a collective shock to push through radical pro-corporate measures.
‚ÄúThis government has rushed through fundamental changes without taking people into confidence, and in fact, has used the absolute vulnerability of the populace to further its anti-people agenda,‚ÄĚ the letter says.
Among the 506 signatories to the letter are Ayesha Kidwai, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Gautam Bhatia, lawyer; Jhuma Sen, legal academic; K Chandru, retired Madras High Court judge; Meena Saraswathi Seshu, social activist; Pratiksha Baxi, Associate Professor, CSLG JNU; and Teesta Setalvad, journalist, activist and educationist, amongst others.
Legal experts, women also concerned
A group of former judges and lawyers has also questioned the lack of diversity on the criminal law reform panel. Sixty-nine of them wrote to Dr Ranbir on Wednesday.
Women lawyers from across India have also expressed grave concern that there isn‚Äôt a single woman on the panel. ‚ÄúThe only manner in which systemic and institutional biases can be cured‚ÄĚ is by ‚Äúensuring diversity and representation of various stakeholders in the legal reform process,‚ÄĚ says the letter, as reported by Live Law.