India dispatch: proposed criminal law reforms have their benefits, but some terms raise questions Dispatches
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India dispatch: proposed criminal law reforms have their benefits, but some terms raise questions

Indian law students are reporting for JURIST on law-related developments in and affecting India. This dispatch is from Samar Veer, a third-year law student at National Law University, Delhi and JURIST’s Dispatches Managing Editor. 

Union Home Minister Amit Shah introduced three new bills in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Indian Parliament) Friday that are set to replace three existing statutes that largely form the core of the Indian criminal justice system.

The Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the Indian Evidence Act (IEA) are to be replaced by the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita Bill, the Bharatiya Nagrik Suraksha Sanhita Bill and the Bharatiya Sakshya Bill, respectively.  These bills come after a Criminal Law Reforms Committee constituted in 2020 submitted its report in February 2022, analysing the Indian criminal legal framework at length.

As of now, the Bills have been sent to a Parliamentary Standing Committee for review.

The new bills introduce various new provisions punishing new types of offences, while repealing some older ones. Various sections have been reordered and several offences have had their punishment reduced to fines instead of imprisonment.

Here’s an overview of the most notable changes introduced by the three Bills.

The Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (replacing the IPC) in a notable development, repealing the highly controversial offence of sedition under Section 124A. In recent years, the Central Government had been accused numerous times of using this draconian relic of a law to institute cases against dissidents, accusing them of attempting to overthrow the government. In many instances, these cases were filed merely in response to strong criticism of prominent figures in power. However there are still concerns, owing to the introduction of a new offence in the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita under Section 150- “Acts endangering sovereignty, unity and integrity of India”.

Upon an examination of the language used in this new section, one can see that the language utilized is largely identical to the older offence under Section 124A. It may not be a stretch to say that Section 150 is merely the same offence of sedition, in a repackaged form.

Further, for offences like criminal defamation (previously under Section 499, IPC) punishments have been reduced from two years of imprisonment to the newly-introduced “community service” under Section 354(1) and 354(2). Interestingly, this was the offence for which maximum punishment was accorded to senior Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi earlier this year, and a request to overturn the same was denied by the Gujarat High Court. This conviction led to Gandhi’s disqualification as a Member of Parliament, before a stay on the conviction was lately granted by the Supreme Court.

Other notable developments include the introduction of the death penalty for the rape of a minor, minimum of 20 years of imprisonment for gang rape. Section 302, IPC, which previously punished murder, now describes the new offence of “snatching” which is defined as occurring if “the offender suddenly or quickly or forcibly seizes or secures or grabs or takes away from any person or from his possession any moveable property.”

There is a 20-year sentence or life imprisonment for mob lynching,

Further, Section 102 of the Nyaya Sanhita also mandatorily imposes death or life imprisonment for murder committed by a convict under life imprisonment. Strangely, this seems to be reviving the long-dead Section 303, which mandatorily imposed a death sentence for this offence and was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1983.

In positive developments, many provisions and offences have been made gender-neutral, the terms “insanity” and  “unsoundness of mind” has been replaced with mental illness and Section 377, which punishes intercourse seen as “against the order of nature” (and was used to criminalise homosexuality earlier) now stands repealed. Further, in a long-overdue development, punishment for attempt to suicide under Section 309, IPC, along with Section 497 (punishment for adultery) has also been repealed.

Overall, the new bills constitute a landmark development. For many years, it has been said that various laws in the Indian justice system (such as Section 309 and 377 mentioned above) are obsolete and would merit repeal. It is encouraging to witness such long-overdue developments finally come to fruition. The increased gender-neutrality in terms and discontinuation of terms like “insanity” are also welcomed.

However, not all is well with these changes. Most notably, it may have seemed for a brief moment that the seemingly immortal offence of sedition that stubbornly refuses to depart and reach the end of its artificially-extended life, was in fact, repealed. However, the new Section 150 does not do anything except change the name of the offence, while retaining the provisions in pith and substance. How the judiciary of the land construes this, especially in light of the hold put on prosecutions under Section 124A, will be an interesting exercise in common law jurisprudence.