India - December 2023
Controversial bills passed amid mass suspension of opposition lawmakers
On 20 December, the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) passed several key bills, including the contentious Telecommunications Bill 2023 and three criminal law bills. The bills were passed after parliament suspended an unprecedented 146 members of opposition parties for allegedly disruptive conduct. The suspended MPs demanded a debate and statement from the government concerning a parliamentary security breach that occurred on 13 December, in which intruders set off smoke canisters in its lower house. The government rejected calls for a debate but ordered a probe into the incident. Rights organizations have criticized the hasty passage of bills without room for proper deliberation. Speaker of the lower house Om Birla argued security is within his purview and he is investigating the matter, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the security breach “very serious” but did not see the need for a parliamentary debate.
Key bills on telecom, criminal code and election commissioner passed
Amidst the suspension of opposition members, the government passed several significant bills, including the contentious Telecommunications Bill 2023, three criminal law bills and the Election Commissioner Bill.
The Telecommunications Bill aims to simplify and reform India’s century-old regulatory and licensing laws governing internet and mobile connections. It also allows the government to temporarily intercept or suspend telecom services in the interest of national security. It is not clear whether the Bill applies to Over-the-Top (OTT) communication services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Google. Telecom minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has stated that OTT players will not be covered under the bill, however, some industry experts argue the definition under the bill is broad enough for their inclusion. Digital rights experts have called for the bill to be withdrawn, citing surveillance and privacy concerns in its broad definitions that grant authorities too much power.
The Criminal Justice reform bills aim to remove archaic references to the British monarchy, redefine the scope of “terrorism” offences and introduce new punishments for mob lynchings and crimes against women. Notable provisions include expanded detention in police custody from a 15-day limit to 90 days; the offence of sedition has a more expansive definition that includes "offences against the state;" and a broadened definition of terrorism. Amnesty International noted that the new framework would intensify “a targeted crackdown on freedom of expression in the country.” Union Home Minister Amit Shah stated that criticism of the government that it has discreetly brought back the provision of sedition in a new form is misplaced, and noted that no loopholes have been left for the definition of terrorism to be misused. The government maintains that the bills are focused on delivering justice rather than handing down punishment.
The Chief Election Commissioners and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023 allows for the creation of a committee comprised of the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and a cabinet minister (also nominated by the prime minister) to regulate the appointment of top election officials. Critics note that the bill contradicts a Supreme Court order in March 2023 recommending the Chief Justice of India to be one of the three-member panel instead of a cabinet minister. The government maintains that the bill ensures a transparent and objective selection process, with Union Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal also noting that the bill is in line with the SC's directions.
Supreme Court upholds government’s move to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy
On 11 December, India’s Supreme Court (SC) upheld a 2019 decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to revoke the special status for Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating Article 370, the section of the Indian Constitution which had since independence provided the region with autonomy from the central government. The Court affirmed the removal of the region’s autonomy and called for Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to be restored to statehood as soon as possible. Since 2019, the region has been organised as a union territory, which means it is subject to more direct control by the national government than states. The SC also mandated state elections by 30 September 2024 and directed the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations in the region since the 1980s – an action welcomed by human rights advocates. While considered a disappointing but expected ruling by some Kashmiri activists, Modi hailed the Article 370 abrogation verdict as “historic,” emphasizing the government’s commitment to extending the “fruits of progress” and benefits to all, particularly vulnerable and marginalized groups affected by Article 370. In the aftermath of the SC ruling, Parliament passed two bills pertaining to amendments in the J&K Reservation and Reorganization acts, aimed at addressing representation concerns in the region. It remains unclear when J&K statehood would be restored and in consequence what implications this will have on Kashmiri’s rights and representation concerns.