indian flag Saikat Paul/ Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire

India’s Antiquated Penal Code

India's British-drafted penal code includes some highly problematic provisions, which define "sedition" far too vaguely, criminalize homosexual acts, and allow for the prosecution of adultery (but only by women). Such readily abused provisions do not belong in a modern democratic country.

NEW DELHI – A number of seemingly unrelated controversies in India actually have one important element in common: They all relate to criminal offenses codified by India’s British imperial rulers in the mid-nineteenth century that India has proved unable or unwilling to outgrow.

The problematic features of the British-drafted Indian Penal Code include the prohibition of “sedition,” defined loosely as speech or actions promoting “disaffection against the government established by law”; the criminalization of homosexual acts; and the uneven prosecution of adultery. The first two, in particular, have lately been the source of considerable public outrage – and rightly so. These provisions – as I argued when introducing amendments to them in the lower house of parliament (of which I am a member) – can easily be misused by the authorities in ways that infringe upon Indians’ constitutional rights.

Consider sedition, against which a draconian law that was established in 1870 to suppress any criticism of British policies – even criticism that, as one Briton candidly put it, did not involve “an absolute breach of the peace.” The result was Section 124A of the penal code, under which any person who used “words, signs, or visible representation … to excite disaffection against the government” could be charged with sedition and potentially sentenced to life imprisonment. In other words, no free speech for Indians.

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