It comes as a welcome relief that the Union Law Ministry is taking steps to do away with the archaic and obsolete laws that clog our legal system, some of them over a century old that have not kept pace with changing times.
The law has been the subject of satire and derision since ancient times. Aristophanes’ Wasps (422 BC) lampoons the Athenian law courts. And Sukumar Ray the great Bengali satirist wrote a poem, popular to this day, about a country with 21 ridiculous laws that drove its citizens insane. Sneezing without a ticket, growing moustaches and writing poetry were among some of the crimes listed that would attract harsh penalties. The law represents power and attracts humor especially when it is obsolete and bizarre to the point of being malignant. Our own legal system is not without its jawdroppers.
Very recently in Bombay, the police in a misguided attempt at playing nanny arrested partygoers on the suspicion of drug abuse, and not finding any decided to slap them with a jail term and a fine anyway, invoking an archaic law from 1949 that makes it mandatory to buy a permit for “one who desires to purchase foreign liquor and country liquor for possession transport, use and consumption.” The offence can attract a maximum fine of Rs 50,000 and imprisonment up to five years. The magnitude of the penalty equates drinking to the same grade of crime as assault and rioting. Needless to say, this state law, though hardly ever used, is a potential tool of repression in the hands of the local police in Maharashtra who sometimes use it as an excuse for extortion and bribery.
Mr Bumble in The Pickwick Papers calls the law an ass when he is informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction” and she is incapable of individual choice. If we consider the hundreds of thousands – of Indian women who are trapped in abusive or broken marriages by archaic divorce laws and a dysfunctional court system, nothing much has changed. Convenient for alimony dodgers. Most forms in India still ask the applicant to fill in their father’s name —
unless the applicant is a married woman, in which case she is supposed to write
her husband’s name. The Sanskrit word for husband, “pati,” means owner.
Socially, as it is considered disrespectful for a woman to utter her husband’s name, that vital detail goes missing during compilation of the voter’s list and this is the reason why many women are not included on voters lists.
We have a complex web of religious laws with separate regulations for each of our religious groups, each covered by different civil laws. Not a single administration since independence has dared tamper with these laws for fear of offending the religious sentiment and vote banks, bending over backwards to accommodate them. Hindu women still cannot ask for ancestral property to be divided
so that they get a separate share. Parsi women have no right of adoption independent of their husbands. Parsis are also forbidden to adopt children outside their faith. A Muslim can divorce his wife merely by uttering the word “talaq,” or
divorce, three times in front of two witnesses. Muslim women were granted the right to seek divorce in 1939, but a Muslim woman’s share in ancestral inheritance is still half of her brother’s.
The Aircraft Rules, 1937 bans people with epilepsy or psychological disorders from flying. The airline companies find these rules convenient to disembark elderly and disabled passengers and not provide facilities like ambulifts and aerobridges. Indeed, why suffer extra expenses?
Stamp duty is paid in every real estate deal and it varies from state to state. As a result black money flows into the real estate sector. If you can’t cough up a substantial amount in cash you can’t buy a roof over your head. Are we encouraging tax evasion and a parallel economy? But then, according to another law, accepting a bribe is not considered corruption unless taken by a government
The number of archaic laws that need to be superannuated are staggering – running in the thousands. Our government’s functioning is often on the basis of a borrowed judicial system from a colonial era that results in a venal system – one enshrouded in secrecy leading to malfunctioning and corruption. Ayn Rand said, “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible to live without breaking laws.“
If preservation of redundant laws benefits vested interests then the introduction of unnecessary laws is also a creation of the same powers that be and for the same reasons. At the same time that the Law Ministry is magnanimously announcing that it will scrap outdated laws it is trying to introduce a 4.5 percent subquota for “minorities – an euphemistic Indianism for Muslims – in government jobs, schools and colleges. In a country already splintered over religions, castes, sub castes, and pressure groups out for their pounds of flesh, in an orgiastic quota fest, this is a “pernicious” move, to borrow a term closely associated with another precious gem from the past – the Indian sedition law.