The Forum for Fast Justice organised a webinar on the Criminal Justice System in India on Saturday 31st July 2021.
The main presentation was by Mr Siddharth Luthra, senior lawyer specialising in criminal matters. He began by saying that Indian people have a long history of codifying legal matters, beginning with Vedic times through codes like that of Manu and others, which evolved over the centuries. The Delhi Sultanate and later Mughals too introduced their legal concepts in the areas they ruled. The rulers were bound to dispense justice to anyone who knocked at the door of their courts.
However, when the British entered India, even earlier as “traders”, they thought that the legal systems in India needed to be “modernised”. They began drafting laws for India in 1835, long before the takeover of India under the British Crown following the War of Independence 1857. The mindset of these lawmakers across the board was based on the colonial Englishman’s derogatory perception of the Indian people. For instance, Sec 144 on Assembly of 5 or more people – the number 5 is arbitrary but reflects the distrust of the colonisers, that if more than four Indians gather together, they could successfully conspire against the British rulers! They always thought of methods to keep Indians divided in spirit and practice. Laws like the Indian Penal Code, Code of Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act were drafted – though it can be said that the Evidence Act is quite well drafted. They also later “exported” the legal systems, especially the Indian Penal Code, which they had drafted to other colonies in Africa and Asia. The fact that the criminal justice system has the underlying colonial mindset is in fact responsible for many of the problems in it which continue to the present day.
Mr Luthra identified some of the major problems with the Indian Criminal System as follows:
- Custodial violence – including many times death of undertrials in police custody which continues even today despite several judgements from many High Courts and the Supreme Court in 1978, 1984, 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1997; and several reforms suggested by National Police Commission, etc. Encounter deaths, which go against all principles of justice are also very common – 85 were reported in 2019 alone.
- Denial of Bail and Death Penalty: even medical bail is denied as in recent Fr Stan Swamy case, undertrials, especially poorer ones, are made to languish in overcrowded jails under inhuman conditions for years. Recently on 28th July, the Gujarat State Human Rights Commission awarded Rs 10 lac compensation to a person who had been so imprisoned without trial for years, but there are too many such cases. The death penalty in a country where poor people do not have access to justice and evidence could be fabricated could lead to grave miscarriage of justice.
- Right to a speedy trial: this is violated most often in India where even criminal matters can go on for 40 years – during which time neither victims nor undertrials get justice.
He said all of the above and more need to be addressed so that the criminal justice system becomes a modern, victim-centric, and humane one. His presentation was followed by questions and discussion.