Call to Disband MHA's 'Unrepresentative' Panel for Overhauling Criminal Laws Grows Louder

A group of lawyers and activists have set up an online campaign against the National Level Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws which they say has been fast-forwarding key procedures.

New Delhi: A group of lawyers and activists have set up a website to call for an email campaign to disband the National Level Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws with the claim that it is unrepresentative, has been fast-forwarding key procedures and has been keen to leave little time for public consultation.

Constituted on May 4, the five-member panel has been set up by home ministry to review criminal laws. The members of the committee are Ranbir Singh (chairman), G. S. Bajpai, Balraj Chauhan, Mahesh Jethmalani and G.P. Thareja.

The announcement about the formation of the committee was first made by Union home minister Amit Shah in December 2019.

The three main laws that the committee is expected to overhaul is the 1860 Indian Penal Code, 1973 Code of Criminal Procedures and the 1872 Indian Evidence Act. The panel has a timeline of six months to review the laws and make recommendations.

Also read: Activists Question MHA as Torture Left Out of Criminal Law Reforms Panel’s Agenda

There had already been misgivings over the lack of diversity of the committee and transparency in its functioning, as expressed in an open letter signed by retired judges and former bureaucrats.

A new website, ‘disbandthecommittee.in’ had been set up, which explains the concerns around the committee and its actual outcome. It also allows for users to register their concerns by e-mailing their own member of parliament, the home ministry and the committee.

The authors behind the website have cited five major issues with the committee – the non-representative composition, limited time frame for this process, opaque manner of functioning, generalised mandate and question marks on the refusal to bring the Law Commission into the process of rewriting legislation.

Last month, 440 law students from six legal institutions had also written an open letter saying that there was not a single woman or an member of the marginalised communities in the committee.

The students had also pointed out that the online consultation in English excludes most of the population of India from the process.

“…A purely online consultation, with questions only provided in English, completely ignores the reality of the backgrounds of a vast majority of our population. Many places lack access to the internet and more importantly, most of the population is not fluent in the English language – the 2011 census recorded that just over 10% of Indians reported knowing and being able to speak some English,” the letter stated.

Also read: Why Relying on Criminal Law Should Not Be the Answer to a Pandemic

Meanwhile, the website also pointed out that the ongoing pandemic is not an opportune time to undertake such a path-breaking reform, which requires wider outreach and inclusion from all stakeholders.

“The communities most affected by a malfunctioning criminal justice system – that will also be the most affected by the removal or loosening of what safeguards exist in that system – have been the worst hit by the pandemic and are in no position to participate in deliberations to reform the criminal justice system. Representations from several communities have called on the committee to suspend this exercise at least until the pandemic has abated,” said the Citizens Against the Criminal Law Reform Committee.