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Vector illustration of dark skinned arms coming out of an open book and breaking the chain between their shackles.

The revamp of the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Evidence Act, respectively renamed Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita and Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam 2023, tabled in the Indian Parliament, are not just laudable but long overdue. Most of our acts and rules are of the 1950s vintage and some even date back to the late 19th century. Hence, a comprehensive revision of these three important legislations should now pave the way for revision of several others that have not been able to break the inertia and start off the block. Revising a law is back-breaking work by professionals followed by intense scrutiny by various ministries and legal experts. Only after passing such muster can it be tabled for consideration by the Parliament. This rigour is often the reason why such changes are not initiated or even discouraged by organisations. Hence, the tabling of these ‘new’ bills is worthy of unqualified praise.

It also shows that the government is cognisant of contemporary issues that impact internal security. Ambiguous interpretations have been addressed by removal of omnibus terms such as ‘sedition’, ‘terrorism’ has been defined and atrocities against women have been accorded greater focus. Several other provisions that deal with today’s ills like organised crime, atrocities against children, hit-and-run incidents, hate speeches, lynching and the like also envisage severe penalties. Irrelevant provisions have been dropped or modified. While the number of sections in the new versions of the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Evidence Act remain approximately the same, the new version of the IPC contains only 356 sections as against the earlier 511. Language has been made simpler so that ordinary mortals will understand the law without the need for a law degree (I wonder if there is a subject called ‘Convoluted English’ in law degree courses).

This is substantial action towards ‘Ghulami Ki Mansikta Se Mukti’ or ‘Overcoming the Slave Mentality’ as enunciated by the Prime Minister. As a starter, all colonial words have been expunged. All our laws, rules and procedures were drafted by the British to manage and exploit a colony, not to govern its own population. That is why the Indian public has traditionally had an adversarial relationship with all government organisations and law enforcement agencies. Our laws must enable an environment where this ‘We Vs They’ mindset is changed to ‘We Are In This Together’ feeling. Many of the bribery, corruption and atrocity stories in our country today are attributed to government agencies and organisations. This must change and new laws alone will not help. This will require education of all government organisations and law enforcement agencies to effect a makeover that restores the public confidence that service will be provided free of harassment and corruption.

Delivery of justice is also sought to be addressed in the new provisions of the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita. Provision of designated police officers, summary trial by magistrates, limits on time taken to pronounce judgements, number of adjournments permitted, automatic bail and a slew of other provisions aim to make the justice system more efficient and responsive to the public and public interest. Likewise, the Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam recognises and admits newer methods of digital evidence such as electronic records, emails and other forms of digital data, requires digitisation of case records and includes provisions for video recordings and forensic investigations where necessary. Once again, I would like to strike a note of caution that laws are not enough. They must be backed up by filling up of judicial vacancies at the earliest, provision to trained staff that will handle modern methods of evidence collection and processing as well as a stringent monitoring mechanism that will ensure adherence to timelines for delivery of justice.

Any system is as good as the people who implement it on ground – in this case, the police, investigating agencies and the judicial system. They must be adequate in numbers (for instance, the police to public ratio in India is amongst the lowest in the world), trained and equipped for the job, be insulated from political interference and their motivation levels must be high. A resurgent India must have effective mechanisms to maintain peace and reduce crime, without which our race to realise the ‘Amrit Kaal’ will remain well below our potential.

There is only one drawback that I see in this whole exercise. Calling a cheat ‘Saala 316’ is not quite the same as saying ‘Saala 420’. Bollywood, too, will have to work overnight to educate its scriptwriters. Now, screen judges will have to proclaim “Mulzim ko Dafa 101 ke tahath phaansi ki sazaa sunayi jaati hai.” I am willing to adjust to these momentous changes – as long as justice is delivered – and people are delivered from the inefficiencies of our policing and justice systems.

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