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Our laws older than our country

india Updated: Jul 24, 2009 00:03 IST
Nagendar Sharma

Do you know how many laws our country has? Probably not. And the answer is going make you sit up in surprise. 2,000. But nearly two-thirds of them have not been used even once during the last 60 years.

The debate generated by a Delhi High Court judgment that legalised homosexuality among consenting adults turned the spotlight on the Indian legal system that relies on laws — majority of which were framed in the 19th century.

All major laws in the country — criminal or civil — borrowed from the British legal system are 100 to 150 years old.

Countries across the world regularly update their laws, except India. Britain had scrapped the law that criminalised homosexuality in 1967; the court judgment here came more than four decades later.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — which till this month declared homosexuality a crime — is a law that was framed in 1860 and had not been changed during the last 159 years.

Some other shocking laws in the IPC include holding only a man guilty for adultery, sentencing an individual to a year’s imprisonment if he/she attempts suicide and if a woman is accused of murder, she is entitled to bail — while a man is not.

The Law Commission of India, an advisory body that gives its opinion on the relevance of laws to the Law Ministry, in its numerous reports has recommended the repealing of irrelevant laws and “updating of the important ones”.

But government action has been missing so far.

“This is an issue of wider debate and needs careful consideration,” said Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily.

Noted jurist Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer (94), a former Supreme Court judge, headed a commission that found at least 300 outdated laws in Kerala alone.

“Outdated laws will continue to govern our lives for a long time to come unless a comprehensive law reform is undertaken by the Centre and state governments,” Justice Iyer said.

The last time an attempt was made to review these archaic laws was in 2001, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government was in power. It had repealed 357 of the country’s 2,500 laws. All the repealed laws were more than a 100 years old.

Successive Law Commission reports show that nearly two-thirds of the laws have not been used even once since independence. They had recommended that “10 per cent of these laws can be scrapped straightaway”.

The oldest law in the country was made in 1836. It is a single sentence law that allows the West Bengal government to create as many districts as it can. It is still in force.

The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, came into force when the concept of television and other electronic revolutions was not heard of.

It is time to change these laws, say experts, but the question is when?