Government Committee Selected to Reform Criminal Laws Lacks Diversity of Representation
On May 5, The Union Government constituted a special five-member committee to recommend reforms in India’s criminal laws. The committee, through country-wide consultations with law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, judiciary, advocates, academics, and civil society, including media organizations, is seeking suggestions for changes to the country’s penal code.
On July 4, after the committee put out the first questionnaire to seek input, a group of women litigators publicly voiced their opposition. In a letter, they pointed out that the committee is lacking in diversity, as there are no women, Dalits, religious minorities, Adivasis, LGBT persons, differently-abled persons, and grassroots workers from different parts of India.
Calling this unequal represention a “foundational defect,” the group is demanding that immediate steps be undertaken to fill the gaps in representation.
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The first questionnaire addresses subjects including marital rape, honor killing, making sexual offenses gender-neutral. Noting the unreasonableness of excluding the people impacted by these laws from a discussion about them, the letter asked, “Can a discussion on criminalisation of honor killing or mob lynching be meaningful without the inclusion of Dalits and religious minorities on the Committee?”
The only way to root out systemic and institutional biases is to include voices from outside the legal community, the letter argues. Even grassroots workers, whose roles have been vital in spearheading certain legislation, such as the Right to Information Act, dowry laws, and the Forest Rights Act, should be included because their interaction with various marginalized communities gives them insight into those the ground realities.
Hence, as the letter also points out, these are voices we can’t afford to ignore if we want to see a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system. Otherwise, the committee will “become a mere academic exercise, devoid of real impact, or worse, will result in harm.”