The setting up of a five-member committee by the Union Home Ministry to make recommendations for changes in the country’s criminal laws has given rise to many apprehensions. This is not because there is no need for changes in these laws but because of the timing, circumstances and manner ofsetting up the committee and the suspected intentions behind it. There is no doubt that the laws need an overhaul. The Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and the Indian Evidence Act are colonial-era legacies and carry the worldview of the 19th century, when they were first enacted. Many changes have been made in them through amendments and court orders but they still do not fully express or embody the democratic ideals and values of the Constitution such as individual freedom and equality and a modern rights-based and progressive outlook on crime and punishment. A comprehensive overhaul of criminal laws calls for detailed discussions and wide consultations, but the committee may not be in a position to hold them. It was constituted in May and started its work last week, and has to finish it in three months. This is too short a time to undertake such an exercise and do justice to it. The current provisions of the CrPC give the state, victim and the accused the right to appeal against lower court judgements before a higher court, in order to avoid any miscarriage of justice.
However, this clause hasled to inordinate delaysin certain cases, like the 2012 Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder where the convicts are using legal remedies to seek relief from capital punishment. The wisdom and motive in setting up such a committee when the country isin the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic have been questioned. It is pointed out that the committee will not be able to directly interact with retired judges, jurists, lawyers and others to elicit their views and proposals and will only have online consultations. It is also held that this may not be the right time to push through important changes in law. The committee’s composition has been criticised as it is an all-male committee based in Delhi and the north. A number of eminent persons, including lawyers, academics and activists have expressed concern over the mandate and working of the committee. They have demanded transparency in the aims and working of the committee as its terms of reference have not been publicised. It is also noted that the Law Commission, which should have an important role in such a task, has been kept out of the exercise. The committee’s mandate “to recommend reforms in the criminal laws of the country in a principled, effective, and efficient manner which ensures the safety and security of the individual, the community and the nation” has given rise to suspicions that the aim is to align criminal laws with the hard-line views of the government on defining and dealing with crime. Such crucial changes should not be brought about in haste.