The Criminal Justice System
The criminal justice system descends from the British model. The judiciary and the bar are independent although efforts have been made by some politicians to undermine the autonomy of the judiciary. From about the time of Indira Gandhi's tenure as prime minister, the executive has treated judicial authorities in an arbitrary fashion. Judges who handed down decisions that challenged the regime in office have on occasion been passed over for promotion, for example. Furthermore, unpopular judges have been given less-than-desirable assignments. Because the pay and perquisites of the judiciary have not kept up with salaries and benefits in the private sector, fewer able members of the legal profession have entered the ranks of the senior judiciary.
Despite the decline in the caliber and probity of the judiciary, established procedures for the protection of defendants, except in the case of strife-torn areas, are routinely observed. The penal philosophy embraces the ideals of preventing crime and rehabilitating criminals.
Criminal Law and Procedure
Under the constitution, criminal jurisdiction belongs concurrently to the central government and the states. The prevailing law on crime prevention and punishment is embodied in two principal statutes: the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1973. These laws take precedence over any state legislation, and the states cannot alter or amend them. Separate legislation enacted by both the states and the central government also has established criminal liability for acts such as smuggling, illegal use of arms and ammunition, and corruption. All legislation, however, remains subordinate to the constitution.
The Indian Penal Code came into force in 1862; as amended, it continued in force in 1993. Based on British criminal law, the code defines basic crimes and punishments, applies to resident foreigners and citizens alike, and recognizes offenses committed abroad by Indian nationals.
The penal code classifies crimes under various categories: crimes against the state, the armed forces, public order, the human body, and property; and crimes relating to elections, religion, marriage, and health, safety, decency, and morals. Crimes are cognizable or noncognizable, comparable to the distinction between felonies and misdemeanors in legal use in the United States. Six categories of punishment include fines, forfeiture of property, simple imprisonment, rigorous imprisonment with hard labor, life imprisonment, and death. An individual can be imprisoned for failure to pay fines, and up to three months' solitary confinement can occur during rare rigorous imprisonment sentences. Commutation is possible for death and life sentences. Executions are by hanging and are rare--there were only three in 1993 and two in 1994--and are usually reserved for crimes such as political assassination and multiple murders.
Courts of law try cases under procedures that resemble the Anglo-American pattern. The machinery for prevention and punishment through the criminal court system rests on the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1973, which came into force on April 1, 1974, replacing a code dating from 1898. The code includes provisions to expedite the judicial process, increase efficiency, prevent abuses, and provide legal relief to the poor. The basic framework of the criminal justice system, however, was left unchanged.
Constitutional guarantees protect the accused, as do various provisions embodied in the 1973 code. Treatment of those arrested under special security legislation can depart from these norms, however. In addition, for all practical purposes, the implementation of these norms varies widely based on the class and social background of the accused. In most cases, police officers have to secure a warrant from a magistrate before instituting searches and seizing evidence. Individuals taken into custody have to be advised of the charges brought against them, have the right to seek counsel, and have to appear before a magistrate within twenty-four hours of arrest. The magistrate has the option to release the accused on bail. During trial a defendant is protected against self-incrimination, and only confessions given before a magistrate are legally valid. Criminal cases usually take place in open trial, although in limited circumstances closed trials occur. Procedures exist for appeal to higher courts.
India has an integrated and relatively independent court system. At the apex is the Supreme Court, which has original, appellate, and advisory jurisdiction (see The Judiciary, ch. 8). Below it are eighteen high courts that preside over the states and union territories. The high courts have supervisory authority over all subordinate courts within their jurisdictions. In general, these include several district courts headed by district magistrates, who in turn have several subordinate magistrates under their supervision. The Code of Criminal Procedure established three sets of magistrates for the subordinate criminal courts. The first consists of executive magistrates, whose duties include issuing warrants, advising the police, and determining proper procedures to deal with public violence. The second consists of judicial magistrates, who are essentially trial judges. Petty criminal cases are sometimes settled in panchayat
(see Glossary) courts.
Data as of September 1995