A letter has been addressed to Prof. (Dr.) Ranbir Singh, Chairperson of the Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws, raising strong objections to the constitution and the processes employed by the Committee, including the "rushed timeline" proposed.
The letter has been penned by a group of lawyers, activists, social workers, counsellors, academicians, psychologists, policy consultants and other professionals working on child rights across the country.
They have expressed concerns over Lack of Diversity in the Committee inasmuch as there is no representation from various groups and sections of the society that are to be directly impacted by reforms in criminal laws of the country.
"There is a stark absence of women members, members from the LGBTQ community, members belonging to religious minorities, members belonging to the SC/ST groups, and persons with disabilities, to name a few," the letter points out.
The addressees have thus called upon the Committee to be "reconstituted in accordance with the principles of participatory democracy" thereby creating an "inclusive and meaningful process towards sustainable reform of the criminal laws in India".
They also contest the Inadequate Time-frame provided to the stakeholders to respond to all questions/ issues.
"We find it irresponsible that the 160 year old criminal laws of this country are proposed to be drastically altered within a period of only six months…We find it difficult to understand how it would be possible to engage with the breadth of issues in the current criminal laws that impact vast groups, in such a short period of time and that too with consideration of inputs from various stakeholders, including children," they contest.
The letter states that the questions raised vide the recent questionnaire require "evidence-based deliberations" and consideration of multiple and diverse points of view that take into account factors like larger socio-cultural frameworks, adolescent development, and the use of the criminal law to victimize the very groups it seeks to protect.
Inter alia, the letter seeks:
1) View child welfare in contiguity with other indicators of immediate concern such as poverty, homelessness, displacement, bonded labor etc.
"Pushing through criminal reform in legislation on the basis of opinions sought around a limited & inadequate questionnaire when basic safeguards and welfare are being attacked, shows no inclination to meaningfully making reforms to address societal issues but only in managing it," it suggests.
2) Publish Terms of Reference of the Committee and all submissions made to it as well as Committee's reasoned responses
"The 'Expert Consultations' and 'Open Consultations' cannot be fully democratic and transparent processes unless the Terms of Reference of the Committee and all submissions (expert and non expert) made to the Committee as well as the reasoned responses of the Committee are made public on the website. The reasons behind the decision to forgo historically standard practices of law reform such as setting up of law commissions under the Union Ministry of Law and conducting national consultations in favor of the current Committee and process must also be made clear," the group has urged.
The five-member Committee was constituted by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs vide Notification 1-2-19 Judicial Cell (Part I) dated 4-5-2020, to recommend criminal reforms in India. It comprises three professors from National Law University, Delhi, including the Chairperson and the Convenor.
The composition of the Committee is as follows:
- Prof. (Dr.) Ranbir Singh (Chairperson), Vice-Chancellor, National Law University Delhi
- Prof. (Dr.) G.S. Bajpai (Member & Convenor), Registrar, National Law University Delhi
- Prof. (Dr.) Balraj Chauhan (Member), Professor, National Law University Delhi
- Mr. Mahesh Jethmalani (Member), Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India
- Mr. G.P. Thareja (Member), Former District & Session Judge, Delhi
Recently, former High Court and Supreme Court Judges, Senior Advocates, Academics and Former Bureaucrats, working with the criminal justice system across the country had also expressed concerns over the composition and transparency in functioning of the Committee.
Highlighting the significance of "meaningful public engagement" with the work of the Committee, the luminaries had called upon the Committee to "demonstrate its bonafides and its commitment to a rigorous law reform exercise by ensuring full transparency regarding its constitution and its functioning."
Responding to the letter, the Committee had issued a Public Notice specifying its intention to indulge in an "open, transparent and fair" discussion on the proposed criminal reforms in India.
"Since its establishment, the Committee has been inclined to be open, transparent and fair in its working. We fully respect all the opinions and suggestion made to us. The structural part of it .e.g. composition- lies with the M.H.A. but for its functional part we are completely autonomous and willing to respect the suggestions," the Committee had clarified.