Indian minister calls for abolition of 1,500 laws dating back to Raj

Archaic laws include fining those who fail to beat a drum to beat back locusts or report money found in street

An Indian minister has called for his country to abolish 1,500 archaic laws dating back to the British Raj.

On the statute book are laws that range from equating kites with aircraft so that anyone wanting to fly a kite needs a licence, to a requirement for car inspectors to have “well-brushed” teeth.

The law minister, Kiren Rijiju, said the next session of parliament in December would repeal obsolete laws, fulfilling what he said was the wish by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to free Indians of a maze of useless and irrelevant laws.

“It is the prime minister’s desire to reduce the compliance burden of people, to ensure that they can live as peacefully as possible,” Rijiju said on Saturday.

India’s legal system is clogged with more than 40m cases crawling their way glacially through the courts.

The reasons for the unacceptable backlog are complex. Archaic laws probably account for only a small number of these cases but the government wants to get rid of anything that could be a contributory factor.

Lawyers say most Indians are not affected by these laws remaining in force but they can at times be dredged up in courts to create problems or be open to abuse by corrupt officials.

For example, an 1867 colonial law dictates that all owners of sarais (rest houses) must provide free drinking water to all passersby. Corrupt inspectors can cite this law to harass hotel owners into paying a bribe.

Since the only way of beating back locusts is for everyone en masse to make loud noises, the law says that anyone in the capital, New Delhi, who fails to beat a drum in this situation will be fined. If anyone finds money on the road that is worth more than 10p, it has to be reported to the “district collector” at once to avoid a penalty.

In a quirky exception dating back to 1855, the British deemed an Indian tribe called the Sonthals to be an “uncivilised race” and therefore exempted them from the law of the land. The law still stands.

The government told MPs in 2019 it had repealed about 1,000 laws since 2015 but that still left many more. One law the government has shown no inclination to repeal is the 1870 sedition law introduced by the British to stop Indians conspiring to overthrow them.

On the contrary, 475 cases of sedition have been filed from 2014-21, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Critics claim the law is being abused to silence criticism and muzzle free speech.

In May, the supreme court put the law on hold until it has been thoroughly re-examined and told the government not to use it until the review is completed.

Sanjay Hegde, a senior supreme court lawyer, said he was, in principle, in favour of repealing archaic laws. “But we have to watch carefully to make sure that under an omnibus repeal, some laws designed to protect the minorities’ places of worship are not quietly done away with too,” he said.


Amrit Dhillon in Delhi

The GuardianTramp

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