Most of us know of courtroom humour. But a few old laws also lend themselves to humour, distanced as we are by decades (or even a whole century or even more in some cases) from their enactment. The laws are all real. Read on.
1. The Whipping Laws
"WHEREAS it is expedient that in certain cases offenders should be liable, under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, to the punishment of whipping" decided the very British Governor General of India (are any of us surprised?), and enacted the Whipping Act, 1864 to add that degrading corporal punishment in lieu of or in addition to other punishments for some offences of the Indian Penal Code. Though it must be said, they were kind enough to exempt females and a few others from whipping and to put the whipping into abeyance for fifteen days from the date of the sentence in cases where the sentence was revisable or until the sentence was confirmed by the superior court if an appeal was made within fifteen days. As time went by, the British probably felt a little shaky about whipping the natives but not quite so. So what did they do? They enacted the Whipping Act, 1909, altering the category of the whippable. Well, after decades of the whip, the Indian Parliament, freshly whipped out after the freedom struggle, decided everyone had had enough and enacted the Abolition of Whipping Act, 1955. Whew.
2. Countess of Dufferin's Fund Act, 1957
Some make themselves immortal by their brilliant discoveries and inventions, some by creating works of art. Hariot Georgina Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, wife of the Viceroy of India, got posthumously immortalized by getting a statute in her own name. Well that happened only because she, upon being tasked by Queen Victoria with improving healthcare for women in India, cleverly got the Fund, known as the National Association for Supplying Medical Aid to the Women of India, named after herself, the 'Countess of Dufferin Fund' (as she then was). But it wasn't the first time, because the first steam locomotive in the Canadian prairie provinces was named after her when her husband was the Governor General of Canada, and later some hospitals, clinics and medical schools in the subcontinent. We really should stop sniggering at names appearing on park benches and public toilets, for even nobility indulges. Anyway, once the country got independence, the Central Government merrily disbanded the Fund and usurped the assets and this was the statute that did the dirty job. Not sure the Marchioness, lying in her grave for over two decades by 1957, quite enjoyed being immortalised by being dissolved.
3. Dramatic Performances Act, 1876
It is a truth universally acknowledged that few governments like free speech and expression. The ever-fainting and faint-hearted Brits were quite scandalised by Indian theatre. And there must have been more to it than just sedition by us natives, since they enacted this law to empower the government to prohibit public dramatic performances which were "scandalous, defamatory, seditious or obscene", these terms not being defined in that law. One can understand making contravention an offence, but they also empowered the authorities to "seize all scenery, dresses and or articles found therein and reasonably suspected to have been used, to be intended to be used, for the purpose of such performance". One wonders what the British did with all those dresses and false moustaches. Anyhow, it seems the British leaving India didn't do much good for the hapless artists who sincerely wished nothing more than to outrage and offend. Stringent censorship of public theatre continued in India in the post-independence era. This Act got repealed as recently as in 2018, but don't be heartened (or disheartened, if you are one of those who get scandalized easily), because there are other ways and means to get theatre censored, banned and threatened.
4. Obscene Books and Pictures Act, 1856
As the name suggests, it seems the natives were quite naughty back then and the British were nannies who felt Indians lacked morality. This law was based on the conviction that "the practice of offering for sale or exposing to public view obscene books and pictures encourages immorality, and it is expedient to make provision for the prevention of such practice". And thus, whoever sold or distributed or exhibited any obscene book, paper, print, drawing, painting, or representation, or sang or recited or uttered any obscene song, ballad, or words, to the annoyance of others, was liable to fine or imprisonment with or without hard labour, and such material was to be destroyed. And the Act prohibited imports too (but not exports). Was such unholy material the conspiracy of some nation, some enemy state, against the 'pious' natives and the 'upright' British? Ah, the wicked world. Mercifully, they exempted sculptures and paintings in temples, and so thankfully, we retained our heritage. The obscenity offences continued under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and continue till date. Everyone loves to impose morality.
5. King of Oudh's Act, 1868
Wouldn't it be lovely to be a ruler? Or so we think. The King of Oudh, our British nannies decided in 1868, needed a great deal of protection from others and from himself. This Act, passed by the Governor General in Council, did both. It stipulated that no suits could be commenced or prosecuted and no writ or process be sued for against the person or property of His Majesty unless with the consent of, well who else, the Governor General. What fun! But wait, they also made His Majesty incapable of entering into any contract which may give rise to any pecuniary obligation on his part. Now what would our legal experts say of this? But the British weren't concerned with such trivialities, for Oudh had been annexed, Wajid Ali Shah deposed and exiled and later other laws passed which gave exclusive authority to the Governor General in Council to act in the administration of the property of the King. Between two rulers, one can never be sure whom one should sympathize with. Well then, just sympathise with the subjects, for whom, probably, nothing much changed whether it was Wajid Ali Shah or the Brits or what came thereafter.
6. Legal Practitioners (Women) Act, 1923
Now who could be foolish enough to raise doubts as to the right of women to be enrolled and to practise as legal practitioners? And to voice such doubts publicly enough to lead to the passing of this law "to remove such doubts" by providing that "no woman shall, by reason only of her sex, be disqualified from being admitted or enrolled as a legal practitioner or from practising as such; and any such rule or order which is repugnant to the provisions of this Act shall, to the extent of such repugnancy, be void". But wait, we are informed it was some men sitting on the benches of some High Courts who decided women couldn't be enrolled, since the Legal Practitioners Act, 1879 provided that only a 'person' could be enrolled and evidently (according to them and some of the foreign counterparts) women were not 'person'. To think that these irrational judges determined the fates of several other 'persons' too.
7. Short Titles Act, 1897
The British took their love for the English language to a level where they couldn't prevent themselves from having a go even when making titles to enactments. And while it was all very nice and comprehensive, eventually they tied themselves in knots and had to enact a law to compress the titles. Sample this: "Prescribing the Rules to be observed in order that ships or vessels belonging to ports within the territories under the Government of the East India Company, or belonging to Native Princes or States or their subjects, may become entitled to the privileges of British ships under a proclamation of the Governor General of India in Council made in pursuance of the Statute 3rd and 4th Victoria, ch. 56" which, in the short title format, became "The Indian Registration of Ships Act, 1841". Or this one here: "Providing for the remuneration of the Sheriffs of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay for the execution of Mufassal Process under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1882, and the Code of Civil Procedure" which, in the short title format, became "The Sheriffs' Fees Act, 1852". While this shortening was certainly required, I do hope, in the twenty-first century, we don't start enacting laws in "SMS language" as some of our judges put it.
So the law has an in-law too, the Humour-in-Law. And Mr. Bumble was right, the law is an ass.
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