About a year ago, as the Narendra Modi government completed its second anniversary in power, it was reported with much fanfare that it had scrapped 1,159 laws deemed obsolete. At least a dozen of these went back to the colonial era, though the Centre decided to retain some—like Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which is historically used to penalise sexual minorities.
Since then, many more laws have gone, but we, in India, know that every silver lining comes with a dark cloud. Recently, the executive and judiciary arms have proposed new laws that may have a decisive effect on the perception of crime and punishment in the country.
We present four of these offences that may invoke harsher penalties in the future, should these proposed legal changes come through.
Few other sensate being enjoys as much legal protection in contemporary India as the cow. Politicians wax eloquent about its mystical qualities, demanding it to be made the national animal, replacing the tiger. It's excretions are believed to possess miraculous powers, from arresting ageing to warding off radioactivity.
A law in Gujarat penalised cow slaughter with life imprisonment, but recently the Union government went several steps ahead by passing a notification modifying an existing rule to prevent cruelty against animals. By prohibiting sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter across India, the regulation indirectly banned trade in and consumption of beef, though the Union home minister begged to differ.
Taking a cue from these developments, a Hyderabad high court judge has now asked the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to make cow slaughter a non-bailable offence. Arbitrating a dispute about 63 cattle that were seized from a complainant, the judge asked the states to amend the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and IPC Section 429 to make slaughter of cattle a non-bailable offence.
His reason: "Cow is a substitute to mother, who is a substitute to God". Now which logical argument would fly in the face of such divinely ordained decree?
'Hurting' River Ganga
In the hierarchy of offences, 'hurting' Hindu India's sacred animal and river are as evil as robbery, cheating, causing grievous hurt and attempt to commit culpable homicide. All of the latter can land you in jail for a period of 7 years, and so could sullying River Ganga, plus, wait for it, a penalty going up to ₹100 crore.
The National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill 2017, drafted by the Centre, has the noble mission of reviving one of the country's most ancient and expansive water bodies. But the way it's gone ahead with imagining a clean Ganga sounds not only impractical but also ludicrous.
The Uttarakhand High Court recently deemed the river, considered sacred by millions of Hindus across the world, as a 'living entity'. If the idea behind such an epithet was to invoke the latent humanity in the same million Hindus who have sullied the waters of the river for generations, the court was perhaps being a little too optimistic. Even a celebrated 'godman', whose organisation destroyed the floodplains of another 'holy river', hasn't cared to pay the fine imposed on him by the National Green Tribunal.
Contempt of EC
The Election Commission (EC) of India, which is supposed to act as the upholder of the highest democratic standards in the country, doesn't mind stifling the citizens' democratic right to question its working. Or so it would appear from a report in The Indian Express this morning.
According to a letter sent to the law ministry, the EC has sought amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act 1971 to give it the power to punish anyone being discourteous to its authority. To make its case stronger, it then cites the example of the neighbouring country our government considers its arch enemy (gasp!). All of this angry petitioning stems from the EC's recent brush with the Aam Aadmi Party, which claimed that the electronic voting machines used in the assembly elections were allegedly tampered with.
The EC huffed and puffed, claiming its supremacy in matters of electoral fairness and even pledged to take advanced measures for the 2019 polls. Why then does it want to have absolute immunity from all scrutiny from the electorate if it has nothing to cover up for?
A hoary relic from India's British past, the sedition law was passed decades ago, but is a hot favourite these days. From college students raising slogans against the establishment to citizens who don't stand up for the national anthem, anyone can get slapped with it with for any number of reasons.
Before the drama of demonetisation unleashed a havoc on the economy last year, a district magistrate in Pilibhit said those refusing to accept ten rupee coins as legal tender could be served with a sedition case. More recently, Karnataka police arrested 12 people over a 'Jai Maharashtra' logo imprinted on a bus driven to Belgaum.
Sedition is also routinely invoked in India to silence dissenting voices, especially those activists who lobby for transparency and accountability of the state apparatus. At least 51 right to information activists have been killed since 2005 in the country.
Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu had hinted that slogans of 'azaadi' might also be brought under a tightened sedition law after the Law Commission reviews it. If it happens, it will spell a death knell for dissent, an important tool for democratically and peacefully opposing those in power.
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