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As BNS gets implemented, here are some important changes: From stricter punishment for sexual offences to strict timeline for case resolution

The Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita proposes community service as an alternative to custodial form of punishment for petty crimes.

The Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita (BNS), India’s new criminal code, came into force on July 1st this year. It replaced the British era- Indian Penal Code (IPC).

In December 2023,  the President of India Droupadi Murmu gave her assent to the Bharatiya Nyaya (Second) Sanhita bill, which was passed by both Houses of the Parliament.

Several sections of the IPC, which were afresh in the public mind about certain offences, have been moved to different sections under BNS. Besides the re-arrangement, the new criminal code makes major changes to tackle various forms of crime and ensure speedy justice.

Addresses crimes against Women

The Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita introduces new measures to reduce crimes against women. This includes reporting of crimes against women through electronic First Information Reports (e-FIRs).

It will help in the swift reporting of heinous offences and help overcome stigmas and traditional barriers. The electronic platform will also help victims report crimes discreetly. This measure has been introduced to address under-reporting of crimes against women.

The BNS introduces Clause 69 to specifically tackle sexual intercourse under the false promises of marriage. ​It is now illegal for a man to have intercourse with a woman he has promised to marry if he does not plan to marry her.

Engaging in sexual activity through fraud or false promise will carry a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. BNS now makes a distinction between this criminal offence and rape.

Tougher Laws for Sexual Offences

BNS has introduced a new chapter on “Offences Against Women and Children” to deal with sexual offences. The sexual offences, under the new law, have been made gender-neutral.

The term “minor girl” has been replaced with “child” to cover both male and female victims below 18 years. The section on “importation of girl from foreign country” has been made gender neutral by replacing it with “importation of girl or boy from foreign country.”

At the same time, BNS has introduced age-based classification of rape victims. This has facilitated different sentencing options to the court for the rape of minors of different ages.

It must be mentioned that the punishment is largely the same across the Indian Penal Code, Prevention of Child Sexual Offences Act, and the new BNS.

A new offence of “gang rape of a woman under 18 years of age” has been introduced. It entails a punishment life imprisonment and death penalty.

Moreover, the age of consent for a married woman (under the definition of rape) has been increased from 15 to 18 years.

New checks and balances on Police Power

The BNS introduces measures to prevent misuse of law by police personnel.

For instance, the State Governments are directed to designate a police officer to maintain information on all arrests and arrestees. Such an information will be displayed prominently in each police station in the State and district Headquarters.

At the same time, police officers now cannot arrest individuals below 60 years of age for offences punishable with imprisonment below 3 years without prior permission from Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) or officer above his rank.

Furthermore, the new law expands the category of persons who can be informed about the arrest of an individual to include ‘any other person’ besides relative and friend (existing provision). Such a record has to be maintained at the police station.

Timely Justice through accountability

The Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita introduces timelines for various steps in the criminal justice system to achieve speedy justice. It defines timelines for the initiation of criminal proceedings, arrest, investigation, chargesheet, trial, judgment and even mercy petitions.

After the introduction of BNS, the time limit for conducting a preliminary enquiry is 14 days. An FIR will now have to be taken on record by the Station House Officer (SHO) within 3 days (if signed electronically). Medical examination reports will now have to be forwarded within 7 days.

The compilation of investigation status must be done within 90 days. At the same time, charges will have to be framed within a period of 60 days. And the judgment has to be delivered within 45 days.

Community Service as form of punishment

The Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita proposes community service as an alternative to custodial form of punishment for petty crimes such as –

  1. Public Servant engaging in unlawful trade
  2. Non-appearance in response to a proclamation under Cl. 84 of BNSS
  3. Attempt to commit suicide to compel or restrain exercise of lawful power
  4. First offence of theft of property for offences under Rs. 5000/-
  5. Misconduct in public by a drunken person
  6. Defamation

In the past, several Committees and court verdicts have recommended the use of non-custodial forms of punishment.

This includes the 42nd Law Commission Report, The Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill of 1978, Malimath Committee Report and the 1978 court verdict in Babu Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh.

Community service as punishment can involve unpaid work within a given period during one’s leisure time for the greater good of the community.

Protecting witnesses in criminal proceedings

In the Mahender Chawla Case of 2018, the Supreme Court declared that the Witness Protection Scheme (WPS) would be considered as law until the Parliament or State governments enacted their own scheme.

The verdict emphasised on the need for protecting witnesses in criminal cases. The Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita introduced the Witness Protection Scheme in line with the Supreme Court verdict.

Clause 498 of BNSS states, “Every State Government shall prepare and notify a Witness Protection Scheme/WPS for the State with a view to ensure protection of the witnesses.”

The Witness Protection scheme introduced by the Centre focuses on key elements, including – Categorising risk levels of witnesses, procedures for witness protection, introduction of threat analysis reports and forming a body for implementation and oversight.

Re-arrangement of IPC provisions

One such offence is that of cheating, earlier punishable under Section 420 of the IPC. In fact, the particular offence was made popular by Raj Kapoor through his 1955 classic ‘Shree 420 (Mr 420)’.

As such, common people began identifying cheats with ‘420.’ Under the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, there is no Section 420. The offence of cheating has been moved to Section 316.

The crime of ‘murder’ which was earlier punishable under Section 302 of the IPC has been moved to Section 101 of BNS. Interestingly, Section 302 of the Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita criminalises the offence of snatching.

Similarly, section 144 of the Indian Penal Code which punished illegal assembly is now criminalised under Section 187 of the BNS. Rape, which was earlier a criminal offence under Section 376 has been moved to Section 63 and Section 64 under the new law.

The act of waging war against the Indian government, which was punishable under Section 121 of the IPC, has been moved to Section 146 of the BNS. Defamation, earlier criminalised under Section 499 of the IPC is now included in Section 354 of the Bharatiya Nyay Sanhita.

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