Indian government plans to repeal hundreds of pre-independence laws
Legal relics of British rule face biggest clearout since India became independent in 1947
In India, shooting an elephant carries a fine of 500 rupees, or £5, according to a colonial law dating back to 1879.
Another statute from 1878 states that anyone discovering treasure worth more than 10 rupees should not pocket it, but inform the nearest tax collector.
Going by the Indian Motor Vehicles Act of 1914, inspectors in the eastern state of Andhra Pradesh should have freshly brushed teeth, but not “pigeon chests”or “flat feet and hammer toes”.
If India’s new government has its way, these legal relics of British rule, and up to a thousand others, could soon be repealed in what may prove to be the biggest cull of laws since 1947, when India won its independence.
“Some of the laws on our books are laughable. Others have no place in a modern and democratic India,” India’s law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said earlier this month.
The first 287 laws will be consigned to legal history during the November session of parliament, if the government gets its way.
After that, police officers will no longer be required to doff their caps to royalty and the federal government will lose the “exclusive privilege of conveying by post” most letters, which today forces Indian courier companies to rebrand them as “documents”.
The 1898 Indian Lepers Act, which mandates confinement for those infected with the debilitating disease, could also be amended, according to the Deccan Chronicle.
And an act passed in 1949 making it a crime for adult male Punjabis to refuse “a call to arms” against a swarm of locusts looks doomed as well.“The project goes beyond identifying laws that are outdated,” AP Shah, chairman of the Law Commission, an advisory body proposing the changes, told the Hindu newspaper. “It also seeks to weed out laws that impose a heavy regulatory burden and whose costs outweigh their benefits.”
But critics say repealing these laws has nothing to do with genuine reform.
“In the US you have plenty of bizarre laws that say you can’t wear a top hat on a Tuesday or kill a pig on Thursday. It’s the same in Britain and no one takes those laws seriously,” said Gopal Sankaranarayanan, an advocate in India’s supreme court. “The government is simply picking low-hanging fruit to give the perception that they are bringing change. What they should be doing is reforming the penal code.”
India’s penal code also dates back to British rule. Drafted in 1860, it includes two controversial sections still used today.
Section 377 criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman or animal”, which, it has been argued, includes homosexuality.
In December 2013, India’s supreme court reinstated the law, making gay sex illegal, despite a lower court striking it down in 2009. Another section, 295a, seeks to protect religious minorities from hate speech, but is often used to intimidate and silence artists, critics and scholars.
Most recently, this so-called “blasphemy law” was used to target Wendy Doniger, the American professor whose book on Hinduism was in effect banned by a single complainant who said he disagreed with its content.
“It’s used as tool for harassment. Anyone can say their ‘religious sentiments’ have been hurt and file a criminal case for which you can be sent to jail,” said Shefali Malhotra, advocate at the Centre for Civil Society.
“The government should take a stand and make their position clear,” Malhotra said. “It’s high time we get these laws off the statute books.”
But India’s Hindu-nationalist government, led by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, who came to power in May with an overwhelming mandate, has not targeted either of these laws for reform despite calls to do so.
National surveys show most Indians share the government’s conservative views on religion and sex.
“They know their political constituency,” said Sankaranarayanan. “It’s too much of an emotive, polarising issue for any party or individual to do away with these laws.”
Read the story on The Guardian website.