Delhi Scraps Laws Against 'Uncivilised' Tribes and Knock-kneed Vehicle Inspectors

Published: 15th October 2014 11:49 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th October 2014 11:49 PM   |  A+A-

India is to scrap hundreds of archaic colonial-era laws as part of its drive to modernise the country.
Officials are scrutinising more than 1,000 laws, many of which date back more than 150 years and which were often passed by the British colonial government to legalise discrimination against groups that challenged its rule.

Some Raj-era laws were repealed soon after India became independent in 1947, but hundreds remain on the statute books, including the 1861 ban on homosexuality as an "unnatural offence" along with laws passed to check "subversive" acts against colonial rule. Some now appear farcical. The Police Act of 1861 requires all officers to doff their caps in the presence of royalty despite the fact that India has not had an imperial monarch since independence. Indira Gandhi stripped India's royal families of all privileges in 1971.

The Indian Motor Vehicles Act of 1914 was introduced to regulate the growing number of motor cars and reflected the government's requirement for its inspectors to be of the highest quality: those in Andhra Pradesh in the south could be disqualified if they had bad breath, a pigeon chest, knock knees, flat feet or "hammer toes".

In 1934, the British Indian government introduced the Bangalore Marriages Validating Act to spare the blushes of an evangelical vicar and a number of couples he had illegally married.

After obtaining a licence to marry Christian couples in Bangalore's military cantonment, Walter Redwood, a Plymouth Brethren priest, extended his writ beyond its boundaries without authorisation. When his error was discovered seven years later, the colonial government simply enacted retroactive legislation to render all these unions legal.

Some of the legislation was more sinister. The Sonthal Parganas Act of 1855 removed all legal cover for members of the Sonthal tribe in Bengal and branded them an "uncivilised race". The tribesmen had rebelled after their lands were annexed by British officials and Indian moneylenders. According to Sidney Blanchard, who visited the area and wrote a dispatch for Charles Dickens's Household Words magazine in 1855, the tribe had cut off the hands and feet of two European women and killed a European baby "whose blood they compelled its mother to drink - they themselves partaking of the refreshment in a friendly manner".

The review was welcomed by Subhash C Kashyap, a former secretary-general of India's Lok Sabha parliament. "These laws have no place in the present time," he said.

But Partap Singh, the All India Bar Association general-secretary, said he believed it was a "political stunt", adding: "There are more pressing matters. Every law has its importance. It's not necessary that old laws are always useless."

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