The best news of the month is that Palaniappan Chidambaram has finally woken up to the need to do away with the “medieval and colonial” laws that so infest the system of justice in this country. These comments were made after Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi expressed dismay at Justices Singhvi and Mukhopadhyaya’s touching loyalty to Victorian values. For Chidambaram has, along with Kapil Sibal, been responsible for criminalising vast swathes of human behaviour since 2004. The Chidambaram-Sibal duo has ensured that a slew of fresh legislation and regulations have come into force, that are so diffuse in their meaning that almost any action can be deemed sufficiently criminal to send an individual to prison. Chidambaram in particular has ensured that prison gets made the default option for a slew of tax-related actions on the part of the private citizen. Discretion given to the official has increased in proportion to the increase in punishments prescribed. Small wonder that the quantum of bribes has gone up significantly during the past nine years. Of course, the domestic economy gets very little benefit from such unrecorded income, as since 1998, much of the black money collected as bribes — even within India — gets sent abroad, to Dubai, London and Singapore, amongst other destinations. It has taken a long time for Chidambaram to realise the harm he has done to the future of India by seeking to perpetuate and deepen a medieval code of “justice”, intended by its British framers to be a way of ensuring that the people of India remain in chains, unable — by the force of law — to develop their skills and improve their lives, save by the express consent of one government agency or the other.
India is unique in having a modern Constitution that co-exists without challenge alongside an archaic set of laws, including the criminal and police codes. These belong to the 19th century and are clearly intended to hold down rather than liberate the citizen. It is a mystery as to how the IPC, the CrPC as well as the overwhelming bulk of existing laws and regulations in the country can get reconciled with Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution of India, which together guarantee equality before the law, prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, sex, caste, location or faith, and the protection of life and liberty. If a Hindu sets up a school, that becomes subject to the Right to Education Act, which seeks to make up for the wilful failure of the state to ensure a proper school education for the poor by leeching onto the private sector. However, a school set up by a member of the minority community gets exempted from the RTE’s far-reaching provisions. A temple can be taken over by the government at a whim, and often are, although a church or a mosque is exempt from such control. In Kerala, the Guruvayur temple near Thrissur gets far more visits by devotees (and far more gifts of gold and cash) than the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, yet the treasure of the latter is several hundred times greater than that of Guruvayur, or indeed, tens of times greater than that of Tirupati, which witnesses a flood of gifts from devotees each hour. Unsurprisingly, there is a clamour for state takeover of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, so that over time, it too can become as bereft of its treasures as those temples under state control have become. The fact that the colonial-era discrimination against temples was not overturned during the six years that the NDA ruled is partly why the Vajpayee period is seen by many as a Congress Lite regime, rather than a genuine alternative to Nehruvian policies.
By its verdict on the gay rights issue, the Supreme Court has once again illustrated the unnatural adherence of post-Independence India to Victorian codes that have seemingly been set in stone for an eternity. Already an object of pity on the world stage, the SC judgement re-criminalising a huge swathe of human sexual behaviour has made this country a laughing stock. Now once again, the police and self-appointed moral policemen will get licence to peek into bedrooms and swagger into parks, to “enforce the law”. The visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to India in 2005 gave a fillip to ties between two countries that have not always been the best of allies. However, in an effort to make up for lost time, it would appear that institutions in India are on course to ensure that the legal system in India remains chained to what the country’s former British masters wanted it to be, which is a system very like what is in vogue to this day in Saudi Arabia. That is, unless Chidambaram acts on his “Born Again” commitment to human dignity and the freedoms given by the Constitution, and seeks to do away with the archaic and oppressive laws that he and his partner Sibal have introduced in the era of the so-called “reformer”, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Constitution of India needs — at long last — to prevail over laws that belong to the dustbin of history.