The Union government’s surprise decision to introduce three proposed codes to overhaul the colonial-era statutes that governed India’s criminal justice system must rank among the most ambitious pieces of reforms attempted in India’s legal architecture in the past few decades. The Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, 2023, the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 2023 and Bharatiya Sakshya Bill, 2023 — introduced in the Lok Sabha on the last day of the monsoon session — seek to replace the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act. They’ll be sent to a parliamentary standing committee for scrutiny and discussion and might not be implemented before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Three aspects merit note. First, despite the far-reaching nature of the amendments, there has been very little public debate on the changes that have been ensconced in these proposed laws. The government would do well to initiate wide-ranging discussions. For example, though sedition is gone, a new provision appears to have taken its place even as challenges against the provision are pending before the Supreme Court (SC). Some sections appear to have been hastily drafted, or have inadvertently stoked some confusion. (say on sexual crimes against men). The new laws would be better served by more robust consultation, which will bring about clarity and transparency in the process. Two, though the IPC and other statutes bore the heavy imprint of Thomas Macaulay and were imbued with the moralities and social attitudes of the Victorian era (think of how the British law made things such as homosexuality or adultery crimes), they also stood the test of time, with the SC striking down only a handful of sections over years. The three codes also evolved over the last seven decades of free India with intervention from the courts and jurists, shaped by landmark verdicts over the years. This progress should also be factored into the new laws, if not already done so.
And three, beyond the legal changes, which are far reaching as is, the decision is also a significant political move by the government. If he’s successful in securing a third term, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi will become the first PM since Indira Gandhi to do so. By making far-reaching changes in the ways India is governed, the National Democratic Alliance administration is underlining its policy priorities and philosophy, while stating its intent of leaving its distinct imprint on the evolution of India.
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