Interview: Ranbir Singh

Ranbir Singh: Reforms were long overdue

Print edition : September 25, 2020

Professor Ranbir Singh.

Interview with Professor Ranbir Singh, Chairperson, Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws.

The Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws constituted by the Union Home Ministry in May has drawn a fair share of criticism from a wide spectrum. The five-member all-male committee is headed by Professor Ranbir Singh, founder Vice Chancellor of the National Law University, Delhi. With his vast teaching and administrative experience, considering he was also the founder Vice Chancellor of NALSAR, University of Law, Hyderabad, Professor Ranbir Singh feels that being an academic would not be a limitation and that the committee will look into all aspects of criminal law reform on the basis of the widest possible consultation. The committee is expected to give its report by October. Excerpts from an interview Professor Ranbir Singh gave Frontline:

What are the main objectives of the committee set up by the Home Ministry and chaired by you?

The IPC [Indian Penal Code] is almost 160 years old and not any major effort was made to look into the whole gamut of criminal law reforms. Certain countries like Singapore and England looked into this, but it was long back, some 15 years ago. In India, the Malimath Committee gave good recommendations, but its mandate was different and it did not look at the whole landscape of criminal law reforms. This committee is looking into the IPC, the CrPC (the Code of Criminal Procedure), the Indian Evidence Act and the Narcotics Act. Our mandate is quite broad. I think it is a wonderful idea on the part of the government. These reforms were long overdue and probably we need to seriously look into what is required and this is what we are doing.

Can you give specific examples of the reforms that are being envisaged?

When I had a meeting in the Ministry of Home Affairs, the impression was that these laws being colonial laws—they were drafted when there was no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we didn’t also have our own Constitution—now we should look at the laws to examine whether they are compatible with international covenants and our Constitution. No effort was made to look into the criminal laws from the point of view of the Constitution and particularly fundamental human rights. That was the idea basically that was conveyed to me at the meeting.

Does the committee plan to consult experts and a wider audience?

Most of the experts are with us. We will consult them whenever there is a confusion in our minds. They are very senior police officers and academics. We are going for wide consultation with all stakeholders, be it judges, lawyers, academics, civil society. Recommendations are pouring in. Because of the pandemic we cannot conduct face-to-face consultations, but still a dozen people are working on the recommendations of earlier committees. The mandate of this committee will also involve looking at past recommendations from the Law Commission or other committees, including our own suggestions. We will put all that on our website. Ultimately it will be decided by the Home Ministry and Parliament.

Would it have been better to have a longer time frame for the consultations on account of the pandemic?

I agree with you that the time frame should be extended, and we had a meeting with the Home Ministry on this. In all our meetings we have been saying to the government that the Malimath Committee took three years, the [Madhav] Menon committee took more than one or two years, and even the Law Commission took a lot of time. With the pandemic being what it is, it is difficult to hold consultations and we plan to meet the Home Ministry about this. We met the Secretary of the Home Ministry on issues concerning the time frame. If we are expected to do holistic work, the time frame is important.

As chairperson, could you ask the government to have a broader representation on the committee?

This is the mandate of the government. We are a vast country and whatever number of people we keep on the committee, it may not be enough. I agree that if the government thinks that some representation should be given to people who have expressed concern, it could be done, but the government has to do it. We are looking at grass-roots justice and criminal justice reforms at that level. For that, we have a senior district judge and a very senior lawyer on our committee

The questionnaire includes new offences, but some, like marital rape, do not figure. Women’s organisations have raised concerns about the exclusion of certain offences and are apprehensive that the committee may recommend a dilution of pro-women laws.

A lot of concerns have cropped up over the years. I agree there are controversial areas, and I am sure that the committee will look at it honestly and rationally. We will give recommendations. Whether it is agreed upon or not will depend on Parliament.

It is felt that it was the mandate of the Law Commission and not academics to look into criminal law reforms.

Let me share with you and the country that a committee of this kind, looking into such an important reform process, has been entrusted to academics. If you look at committees in this country, never have academics been given charge. All important research takes place in academic institutions and universities. The charge was not given to the Law Commission as there is no Law Commission for the last few years. Some people also feel that a senior judge of the High Court or Supreme Court could have headed it. People should be appreciative that it has been given to academics. In foreign countries such work is done by universities. I was a member of the Soli Sorabjee committee on police reforms, of the Kamal Kumar committee on the IPS, Sri Krishna Committee on the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Some people wonder why it is headquartered at the National Law University, Delhi, but it is perhaps because it is cost-effective to have it in Delhi. The kind of research we are doing, the competency and research we have developed, is comparable to any leading university elsewhere. We are also looking at all judgments of the High Courts and the Supreme Court. We will do everything under the sun but we cannot please everybody.

There is a concern that the questionnaire is predetermined, and there is a limit to the word length in which the questionnaire can be answered.

We have said that for the sake of brevity one can give suggestions in brief. But if people want to send in longer notes, they certainly can. It is not an examination that one cannot go beyond 200 words. If anyone wants to say more, they are most welcome to send separate notes.

One of the objectives refers to principled sentencing and simplifying procedures. What exactly do you mean by that?

We will look into it as the provisions for sentencing are old and dated. Bail matters are also important. We are taking the views of people who have worked in these areas and looking at reform processes in other countries too.

Many offences have been decriminalised, but at the same time there are stringent laws, such as the sedition law, which are in contradiction to some of the fundamental principles of the committee’s mandate, that is, reform with a human face.

I don’t know why some of these laws are there on the statute books. Everyone knows that these laws are being misused. These are critical areas. Then there are issues like honour killing, same-sex marriage, mob lynching, etc. There are already lots of comments by the Supreme Court, including on the issues that you mention. We will honestly and squarely discuss each and every problem.

Many academics have come under attack, been put behind bars without bail under some of these stringent and controversial laws, some of which you plan to look into. You are an academic, what is your opinion on this?

I have not seriously looked into this. But as this is not connected to what we are discussing today, I would prefer not to talk about this.

Is there need to be apprehensive that the committee might suggest stringent reforms that might result in the erosion of democratic rights?

It is premature to state whether mild or stringent reforms will be recommended by the committee. The IPC is such a document that even if there is any particular offence or criminal behaviour defined in it, it covers everything. As an example, for honour crimes, people say a different law is required. But we have a law for murder or for lynching. So why need a separate law? The judiciary can interpret every offence the way it wants to. The Vishaka judgment on prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace was law until the Act was enacted.

It is felt that the criminal justice system is skewed against the poor and the vulnerable.

It is skewed not because of the laws but the implementing by agencies. I was part of the Soli Sorabjee committee on judicial reforms. One of the major mandates of this committee was that the police administration system, law and order machinery and prosecution machinery should be separate. The Prakash Singh committee recommended police reforms. The guidelines of both committees were sent to the States as law and order is on the concurrent list. The Supreme Court wanted to know how many of the guidelines in the Prakash Singh committee had been implemented. It was found that nothing had been done. There is a need for reforms at all levels. The world is changing. Forensic science has to keep pace. There are multiple layers of reforms. The report is only one part of that.

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