The British crossed seas, suffered India’s summers and often fell to malaria, all to build an empire. Fifty eight years after a famous independence, the Indian fate is still touched by the empire. Times Review looks at outdated laws that have survived, and at colonial systems and infrastructure that we use, somewhat ungratefully
By Swati Deshpande, TOI
Flying a kite needs Civil Aviation clearance
The Aircraft Act of 1934 describes the aircraft as “balloons fixed or free, airship, kites, gliders and flying machines”. According to this act the Director General of Civil Aviation has the powers to regulate operations of an aircraft, which by Indian law, could be a kite or a balloon that’s floating in the air or fixed to a child’s hand. While there have been considerable attention on laws that guard Indian skies, it is not clear why there is not yet an intelligent description of what constitutes an aircraft.
Your wife is your property
One of the many pleasures of not being male is that a married woman involved in an extramarital relationship is legally innocent while the man who is having an affair with her will be committing a criminal offence, and could be imprisoned up to five years or fined or made to endure both under Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860. Such is the law that an adulterous woman cannot be punished for even the abetment of crime. In most countries both genders are equally held responsible in this matter and their straying will not constitute a criminal offence. The inequality in the Indian law is a consequence of the Victorian notion of those times that a wife is her husband’s property and a man who is having an illicit relationship with her is trespassing or damaging his property. Also, in the age when this law was made, which was long before women’s magazines had helpful sex columns, a woman was not seen to have sexual individuality.
Why the courier company calls your love letter ‘document’
Among the many exclusive privileges the government has granted itself, is the right to send letters. The Indian Post Office Act of 1898 says so. It does kindly suggest that a friend or an employee could deliver a letter for you but no one other than the Central Government can charge for such a service. A letter has been defined by the Act and it does not include ‘documents’. That is a reason why courier companies usually scribble ‘document’ on the envelope containing any written matter.
I’m registered. Your camel may come in
Hotels are still described as ‘inns’ or sarias in The Sarias Act of 1867. It clearly states that only ‘inn-keepers’ who are registered as inn keepers can grant entry to lodgers, their vehicle, sheep, elephant, camel and other animals. The duties of the inn-keepers include chopping branches of sprawling trees to prevent thieves. Also, it’s binding on the innkeeper to give drinking water to any person who asks so. In fact there is a recent case of the Delhi Civic body taking a five star hotel to court for not providing free drinking water to a passerby. It must be the legal intuition, if not knowledge, that makes most Udipi hotel owners in Mumbai keep a tray of glasses at the counter.
By law, these guys are uncivilised
The British found the Sonthal tribe totally “uncivilised” and so passed The Sonthal Paraganas Act of 1855 to put them outside the ambit of other laws. The Act says that law was not being followed, “by the uncivilsed race of people called Sonthals”. So it removed the tribe from the jurisdiction of such laws. Hundred and forty five years after the law was enacted it still stays.
When a public servant must feed an elephant
The Cattle Trespass Act of 1871 describes cattle not only as, “elephants, camel, buffaloes,” but also diligently goes ahead and gives the genders of various animals like “horse, mares, geldings, ponies, colts, mules, asses, rams, ewes, sheep, lambs, pigs, goats”. Worse, it states that if there is an eye-witness account of cattle (as defined above) grazing on private property, the witness can have the animal arrested. It will be sent to the pound. The pound keeper is a public servant who has to feed and water the animals.
Failed suicide is punishable
In a country that largely believes that human lives are deservedly recycled, a probable Christian hangover still exists in its laws. India does not accept a person’s right to end his life. So if you have not been careful in executing your suicide, you will go to jail under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860. However, the Supreme Court has opined that this law is cruel to one who did not want to be alive out side the jail in the first place.
During sex, be in the right place
The moral values of the nineteenth century that has survived the assault of modernity presumed that there’s one natural method of having sex. That’s why anal sex, other adventures of bored couples or the compulsions of homosexuals are punishable under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860. The section falls under the heading ‘offences affecting the human body’. It seeks to punish anyone who “voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals,” with even life imprisonment. As per a survey, most married couples can be punished under this antiquated law that was meant to ban to homosexuality among men. Lesbians do not come under its purvey. Like most men, it seems even the Constitution does not know what exactly lesbians do. In an interpretation of Section 377 of the IPC today, magazine tips on oral sex and other adventures, could be construed as unlawful directives.