Indian legal experts all for overhaul of archaic laws

Some 190 pieces of legislation refer to Queen Victoria

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Legal activists are hopeful that under hisnewly elected Hindu nationalist BJP government archaic colonial laws will be annulled. erased. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Legal activists are hopeful that under hisnewly elected Hindu nationalist BJP government archaic colonial laws will be annulled. erased. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

 

Indian legal experts have drawn attention to the country’s anomalous inheritance of a body of law which dates from the colonial period but which is still on the statue book.

There are still some 190 pieces of legislation, over a century old, that refer not only to the East India Company – the precursor to the British Raj that began in 1858 – but also to the governor general, the crown, Queen Victoria and the privy council.

In many laws women seem to come off worse. Under the 1860 penal code, drafted by Thomas Macaulay, for instance, married men consorting with single women is not considered adulterous. It is, however, illegal for more than 10 couples to dance together on any dance floor.

Anyone out for a stroll dressed in frayed clothing can be booked for “loitering with intent” under the Vagrancy Act while under the East Punjab Agricultural Pets, Diseases and Noxious Weeds Act, young men can be dragooned into beating warning drums if a locust invasion is imminent.

Suicide is illegal under the penal code, but suicide attempts are not.

The Indian Motor Vehicles Act of 1914 demands that anyone aspiring to be a motor vehicles inspector in southern Andhra Pradesh state needs to have well-brushed teeth or face disqualification. Pigeon chests, knock-knees, flat feet and hammer toes are other specified causes for ineligibility for this post.

Outdated

A committee appointed in 1997 to remove these outdated statutes prepared a catalogue of about 1,200 laws that should be struck out, but its members claimed that India’s hidebound bureaucracy had successfully prevented any substantial change.

“All too often bureaucracy gets in the way of legal change,” former federal law minister Ram Jethmalani told India Today magazine.

Legal activists, however, are hopeful that under Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s newly elected Hindu nationalist BJP government, these colonial laws will, indeed, be erased. “What we need is some spring cleaning,” said former attorney general Soli Sorabjee.