Make SC Constitutional Court, repeal criminal defamation: How the Congress aims to change the Indian legal system

Make SC Constitutional Court, repeal criminal defamation: How the Congress aims to change the Indian legal system

Aditya AK

The Indian National Congress today released its Manifesto for the next five years, ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha Elections.

While, the main focus appears to be on employment, the Manifesto also reveals how the Congress party wants to change the laws in India.

From repealing Sedition laws to introducing a National Judicial Commission, here is how the party promises to change things if they come into power.

Judicial Reforms

The Congress aims to introduce a Bill to amend the Constitution to make the Supreme Court a Constitutional Court that will hear and decide cases involving the interpretation of the Constitution and other cases of legal significance or national importance. 

In the same vein, it calls for the establishment of Courts of Appeal to hear appeals from judgments and orders of the High Courts. The Court of Appeal will sit in multiple Benches of 3 judges each in 6 locations, the Congress envisions.

It also calls for a National Judicial Commission (NJC) to appoint judges to the higher judiciary. As per the Manifesto, 

“the NJC will be comprised of judges, jurists and parliamentarians and will be serviced by a secretariat. Names of suitable candidates will be placed in the public domain and the reasons for selection will be published to ensure that the entire process is transparent.”

It is also envisioned that once the NJC is in place, all vacancies in the Supreme Court and the High Courts will be filled within two months.  A tall order, given how many vacancies there have been for so long in the High Courts.

Other judicial reforms include:

  • enhance representation at all levels of the judiciary for women, SC, ST, OBC, minorities and other under-represented sections of society.
  • fix the retirement age of judges of High Courts and the Supreme Court at 65 years. The retirement age for judicial members in Commissions and Tribunals shall also be 65 years. This will prevent post-retirement assignments for serving judges and allow more opportunities for qualified persons to serve as judges or judicial members. 
  • an independent Judicial Complaints Commission to investigate complaints of misconduct against judges and recommend suitable action to Parliament. 

Change of Laws

Most significantly, like the CPI M, the Congress aims to omit Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises defamation. It also aims to strike down the offence of Sedition contained in Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code from the statute books.

Other changes in laws include:

  • Pass a law titled the Prevention of Torture Act to prohibit the use of third-degree methods during custody or interrogation and punish cases of torture, brutality or other police excesses; 
  • Amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in order to strike a balance between the powers of security forces and the human rights of citizens and to remove immunity for enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture.

Legislative Reform

In a swipe against the ruling BJP government, the Congress promises in its Manifesto to restore the dignity, authority and autonomy of independent institutions while making them accountable to Parliament.

It also calls for an amendment to the Anti-Defection Law by providing that Members of Parliament who disobey the party’s whipper withdraw allegiance shall be instantly disqualified. Such a member will also be disqualified for two years,

Significantly, the Congress promises to introduce the requirement of public consultation before a Bill is introduced in Parliament. 

On the Aadhaar Act, the Congress promises to restrict its use to subsidies, benefits and services provided by the government. Identification other than biometrics will also be allowed. 

Anti-Corruption and Transparency

While pledging to uphold the anti-corruption laws, the Congress also pledges to investigate the circumstances under which a number of scamsters were allowed to leave the country, and to take determined steps to bring them back and face legal proceedings. 

A review of the Right to Information Act, 2005 is also called for. The Manifesto states that provisions that dilute the Act will be omitted, and new provisions to strengthen the legislation will be put in place.

Press and Media Censorship

In the age of fake news and compromised media organizations, the Congress aims to amend the Press Council of India Act, 1978 to strengthen the system of self-regulation, protect the freedom of journalists, uphold editorial independence and guard against government interference. Also called for is:

  • Amend the Press Council of India Act to empower the Council to deal with the menace of fake news and paid news. 
  • Pass a law to preserve the freedom of the Internet and to prevent arbitrary and frequent shutdowns of the Internet. 
  • Amend the Cinematograph Act, 1927 to restrict censorship of films to grounds of national security and obscenity.

Women’s Rights

The Congress promises to pass the Constitution (Amendment) Bill to provide for reservation of 33 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies for women.

Interestingly, it also aims to repeal any provision of law that prohibits night shifts for women.

Also called for is a comprehensive review of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, 2013 and extension of the Act to all workplaces. 

Protection of Minorities

Amendments to the Constitution to provide for reservation in promotion as well as in private higher educational institutions for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes also figures in the Congress Manifesto. 

In the background of attacks on minorities in the recent past, the Manifesto states,

“We will pass a new law in the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha and in the Rajya Sabha to prevent and punish hate crimes such as mob-engineered stripping, burning and lynching. The law will contain provisions to compensate the victims and to hold accountable the police and district administration for proven negligence.”

Some of the other changes to Indian laws envisioned by the Manifesto include:

  • Regulatory forbearance for Micro and Small Enterprises. They will be exempt from all applicable laws and regulations (except the Minimum Wages Act and tax laws) for a period of 3 years from 1 April 2019 
  • Distortions that have crept into the text and the implementation of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 and the Forest Rights Act, 2006 will be removed and the original purposes of the Acts restored and enforced. 
  • Enact and enforce a comprehensive Law on Doing Business in India that will incorporate the best business practices and rules.
  • Enact the Direct Taxes Code in the first year. The Code will levy taxes at reasonable and progressive rates having regard to the level of current incomes, income inequalities and the principles of tax equity. 
  • Review and replace the current GST laws with the GST 2.0 regime that will truly reflect the intent and purpose of a non-cascading, value-added, indirect tax.
  • Enact the Right to Healthcare Act that will guarantee to every citizen the right to healthcare services, including free diagnostics, out-patient care, medicines and hospitalisation through a network of public hospitals and enlisted private hospitals. 
  • Measures to ensure easy access to legal services and recourse to senior citizens especially in cases of neglect, abuse, abandonment, eviction and financial fraud. 
  • Withdraw the Transgender Bill, 2018, pending in Parliament. Instead, Congress will introduce a Bill that will be consistent with the judgment in the NALSA case. The new Bill will be drafted in consultation with the LGBTQIA+ community. 
  • Pass an Anti-Discrimination Law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, gender or language in the supply of goods and services that are made available to the public in general such as housing, hostels, hotels, clubs, etc.
  • Restore Special Category status to the North Eastern States; Withdraw the infamous Citizenship Amendment Bill, which caused widespread resentment; 
  • Remove all provisions stipulating pre- qualifications (such as minimum education) for candidates at elections to local bodies.
  • Institute comprehensive prison reforms recognizing the principle that prisoners enjoy human and legal rights and that prisons are institutions of correction. 
  • Pass a Model Police Act that the States will be advised to adopt and enact in the State Legislatures. 

Read the Congress Manifesto:

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