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Committee to reform criminal law lacks diversity, represents 'privileged' classes: NAPM

Counterview Desk

In a letter addressed to the Union home minister, India's top civil rights network, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), has objected to what it has called “unrepresentative nature of the Committee to Reform the Criminal Law”, formed recently the Government of India.
Stating the manner in which the committee has been formed suggests “flawed process for carrying out Criminal Law Reform”, the letter says, NAPM is “greatly disturbed” by “hasty and opaque manner” in which the current reforms are sought to be carried out, urging the minister to “immediately abandon” the process and undertake a more “transparent, consultative and representative approach” after the pandemic crisis is addressed fully.

Text:

We, representatives of people’s movements and organizations from around the country for peace, justice and equity, wish to share our deep concerns about the proposed reform of Criminal Law and the constitution of the Committee set-up to carry out this task.
Working amongst some of the most marginalized people in remote areas, we have interfaced with criminal law in its various manifestations, and recognize that it is an outdated relic of colonial powers. We welcome an attempt to reform India’s criminal law to reflect the democratic aspirations of India’s population.
However, we are greatly disturbed by the hasty and opaque manner in which the current reforms are being carried out, and strongly urge you to immediately abandon this process and if at all required, undertake a more transparent, consultative and representative approach, at a later time, after the pandemic crisis is addressed fully.
We highlight some of our concerns below about the manner in which the three most important Acts under the Indian Constitution – the Indian Penal Code (IPC), The Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.PC) and the Evidence Act (IEA) – are sought to be “reformed”:
Composition of the Committee: In particular, we are concerned that the Committee entrusted with the important task of submitting a report on the proposed criminal law reform lacks diversity. Comprised of five men, primarily from the privileged classes of Indian society, and housed within the elite National Law University of Delhi, it does not inspire confidence in us that it can truly reflect the multiplicity of concerns regarding criminal law experienced by different marginalized groups. 
Surely, the stated intent of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ must also mean diversity is ensured in a crucial Committee such as this.
Besides having people from different genders, castes, regions, religions, ethnicities and minority populations, the Committee should also consist of people with recognized and wide-ranging experience in different aspects of criminal law – including lawyers and judges drawn from different district courts, high courts and the Supreme Court.
Timing of reform in the middle of a pandemic: We are alarmed that such vital law reforms, requiring careful and widespread deliberation, are taking place at a time when the country is reeling under the impact of a global pandemic. We are puzzled that the notice constituting the Committee was issued on May 4, 2020, when the entire country was experiencing an unprecedented lockdown, and all resources were directed to the most urgent of tasks at hand. 
 Since then, our courts have been barely functional, regular hearings continue to be suspended in most of them, and virtual hearings are being conducted only in those cases with established and perceived urgency. 
We question, therefore, the timing of this notice and the motivation to conduct a review of the three most important laws in our judicial system, which have a jurisprudence of over 150 years, at a time when our legal system is working in emergency mode. It also needs to be highlighted that thousands of lawyers themselves are going through a livelihood crisis in the current situation.
Committee is tasked with overhauling three major laws and over 150 years of jurisprudence in a mere six months, that too while we are combatting Covid
Unseemly haste in law reform: We are greatly distressed at the hastiness and hurried nature of the proposed Criminal Law Reform. We fail to understand why the Committee is tasked with overhauling three major laws and over 150 years of jurisprudence in a mere six months, and that too while we are combatting Covid? All serious law reform that is truly consultative, gives adequate time for meaningful and substantive deliberations on various aspects of the law with different constituencies and stakeholders. 
Lack of transparency: Even though we are barely two months away from the time when the Committee is required to turn in its report – we still do not know what the Terms of Reference for this Committee are, nor do we have access to any proposal, think paper or concept note from the National Law University of Delhi with respect to setting up the Committee.
Even all the questionnaires on which input is sought have not been made public and are available only to “experts”. There is no clarity even regarding the process by which the three Criminal Laws are going to be reformed, and whether or not, the public will get a chance to comment or critique on the final report submitted by the Committee.
Lack of public consultations: The manner in which the Committee has been functioning is most appalling. No space has been created for participation by the public at all. The consultation has been limited to invited lawyers from elite Delhi circles or those who will register online as “experts” in criminal law. The questionnaires are overly long, arcane and of academic nature, and so far available only in English.
There has been no effort to include the views of women’s groups, dalit, adivasi and NT-DNT groups, farmers’, workers and peasants’ movements, minority religious organizations, or trade unions, transgender, queer, disability rights groups etc or make the questionnaires relevant to them – even though these are the people who engage with criminal law on a daily basis and at great odds. 
Even state bar councils and district bar associations have not been notified of this attempt to overhaul Criminal Law and their participation, thus, has been severely lacking.
The process of reforming criminal law, as being carried out now, is completely undemocratic, non-transparent, and exclusive. It gives rise to serious misgivings that there is an ulterior motive behind this process, and it is aimed at carrying out some pre-determined changes to law, rather than honestly understanding and addressing the issues that the Indian society is facing from these colonial laws.
In view of the above, we demand that:
  • The Committee to Reform Criminal Law is immediately disbanded, and the current process is suspended forthwith.
  • No Criminal Reform Law is carried out during the period of the pandemic. The Court System must resume normal functioning, and public meetings must be allowed throughout the country before the Criminal Law Reform process is restarted. 
  • The process of Criminal Law Reform is made fully transparent – it should be clear to the public what aspects of criminal law are to be reformed, and what concerns are sought to be addressed. 
  • Adequate time is given to allow for open and widespread deliberations to take place, in a de-centralized manner. 
  • Representation of various sections of society, especially those from marginalized and under-represented groups, in the decision-making structures to carry out the reform, and their views are actively sought throughout the process. 
We look forward to a reasonable decision from the Ministry, in this regard.
---
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