Explained: Why the Union govt’s panel for criminal law reform is being opposed

The National Level Committee is mulling reforms to the Indian Penal Code, The Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
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The Ministry of Home Affairs in May 2020 set up a National Level Committee to mull reforms to the existing criminal laws in India, namely the Indian Penal Code, 1860, The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. The committee has also invited recommendations from experts in the field of substantive and procedural criminal laws through an online consultation mechanism, and the process for this consultation is open till October 9. 

However, a group of lawyers, activists, academicians and citizens have opposed the committee, questioning the lack of diversity and representation in the committee itself. A website has been created, demanding that the committee be disbanded and the process be halted. Those against the committee have pointed out that neither a woman nor members from marginalised communities — two groups that face the brunt of crime in India — are on the committee. 

Who is on the committee?

The Committee formed by the government is led by Chairman Ranbir Singh, who is the Vice-Chancellor of NLU Delhi, and comprises GS Bajpai, Registrar, NLU Delhi; Balraj Chauhan, Vice-Chancellor, DNLU Jabalpur; Mahesh Jethmalani, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India and GP Thareja, Former District and Sessions Judge in Delhi.

This committee has been tasked with suggesting reforms based on the pendency of cases, based on inconsistencies and inefficiencies in procedure pertaining to arrest, bail, investigation and trial of a case; arbitrariness in police and prosecutorial actions; equation of victims to witnesses, etc. 

According to the committee, it “endeavours to recommend reforms in a principled, effective, and efficient manner which ensures the safety and security of the individual, the community and the nation; and which prioritises the constitutional values of justice, dignity and the inherent worth of the individual.”

Why is it being opposed?

Critics have stated that the committee is constituted of five men with no representation for women, Dalits, Adivasis, trans-persons, or other historically marginalised communities. “There is no representation for religious and social minorities; and no representation for the disabled. The Committee’s membership also has limited geographic spread — three of its members are from Delhi, one is from Jabalpur and one is from Mumbai. There is no representation for any of the five southern states, or from the east or the northeast of the country,” the website protesting the committee has said. 

The committee has also been accused of not promoting itself enough, and the singular online method to send in consultations only in English has also been opposed. As per the committee’s website, users will have to register at criminallawreforms.in/expertconsultation to send in their views. 

Many have also said that there is no awareness of this committee and people do not know that such a committee has been set up, even though the Committee has already exhausted more than half its six-month tenure.

Thirdly, the committee has been accused of bulldozing reforms in the middle of a pandemic. 

“Reform in the time of a devastating pandemic only adds to the exclusionary nature of the process, affording no opportunity for engagement for most citizens of the country,” the website said, calling for the exercise of online consultations to be postponed. 

Many members of the legal fraternity had, earlier too, written to the government voicing their concern over the committee. Former judges, lawyers, academics and former bureaucrats working with the criminal justice system across the country had said that the Committee “lacks diversity both in terms of the social identity of the members, as well as their professional background and experience.”

In August, student bodies at six legal institutions and 440 law students had penned an open letter to the committee and sought the appointment of people from the marginalised communities as well. The letter had cited NCRB data and said that over 55% of undertrials and over 50% of all convicts across the country are either Muslims, Dalits or tribals, even though these communities account for only 39% of the total population of the country.

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