In December 2019, the Central Home Minister Amit Shah announced the Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws. The Committee was commissioned by Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in May 2020, 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; and which prioritises the constitutional values of justice,dignity and the inherent worth of the individual”.
Our criminal laws define the laws concerned with punishment for committing crime. They must have safeguards to make sure that the police, the government, or those with power can’t punish people at will. Experts fear that this committee will dilute these safeguards that currently exist to prevent unfair prosecutions and wrongful convictions. Several lawyers, activists, and academics have raised concerns about the committee and called for it to be disbanded. Let’s take a look at some of the concerns.
1. The Government’s Role
In June 2020, retired judges and lawyers asked the committee to clarify whether the government will have a say in its final report. The committee has not yet responded to this concern. This brings into the question the committee’s independence. Additionally, the current government’s questionable appreciation of the rise in extra-judicial killings and encounters under its party’s UP government is just one example of the ruling government’s disregard of the rule of law.
2. Protocols Ignored
The committee has disregarded certain universally acceptable law reforms adopted by Law Commissions across the globe, including the Law Commission of India. Background research to identify issues/problem areas in laws that are to be reformed, publication of an Issue Paper/Discussion Paper based on the background research, the state of the law, and publicising the methodology are considered essential to the law reform process, but the committee doesn’t comply with any of these requirements.
3. Diversity and Representation
The committee comprises of five upper-caste men, most of whom are based in Delhi. No representation for women, Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, religious minorities, trans people, LGBTQIA+ community, and other marginalised groups exists in the committee. Also to be noted is the lack of trial court lawyers in the committee. Trial court lawyers deal with criminal laws on an everyday basis.
4. The Timing
The committee is carrying out its proceedings, from start to finish, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Amidst a global crisis, public debate, engagement and resistance will be severely limited. This follows the ruling government’s decision to roll back protections for labour, rights of transgender people, and for the environment under the cover of the pandemic.
5. Stakeholder Engagement
There has been no call for public consultations, and no public notice about the setting up or functioning of the committee has been issued. The general public remains largely unaware about the committee’s formation and purpose in the first place. Furthermore, the committee is operating entirely in English and using only online consultation processes, excluding many a stakeholders who don’t speak English and/or do not have access to the internet.
What Can You Do?
1. Inform yourself and others about the committee and why it must be disbanded.
2. Disband The Committee, an online platform by a group of lawyers, activists, academics, citizens, has many resources on its website that can be used to oppose the committee.
3. Write to the Committee, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and your constituency’s elected representative by October 08, 2020 to register your protest. Use this email draft prepared by Disband the Committee to email the Committee, the MHA, and your MP.
At a time when unlawful prosecutions by the State under laws such as the UAPA has become common, it is more important than ever to question its decision to set up a criminal law reform committee amidst a global pandemic and ignoring the need for public engagement. The committee must be disbanded and its process halted at the earliest.