Criminal Procedure bill will not make Indians safer

New Delhi: On March 28, the government introduced the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill in the Lok Sabha, seeking to replace the Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920 which regulates how the police can gather data from convicted or suspected criminals. The Bill exemplifies the current trend to pass laws that are filled with ambiguity and lack safeguards. It also reflects a desire to expand the power of the government to interfere in the lives of citizens. If the Bill were passed, the type of data collected by the police would shift dramatically, from basic fingerprint and footprint impressions to a range of other samples, including iris and retina scans, behavioural attributes, and “biological samples”. The National Crime Records Bureau would hold the collected data for 75 years. Rule-making power in this arena, currently vested only in state governments, would be extended to the central government. More importantly, the Bill would entirely reshape the remit of law-enforcement officers to gather personal data. While the present law’s provisions apply only to convicts, those who are out on bail or those arrested for serious crimes, the Bill extends this wanton collection of data not only to all convicts, but also to anyone who is arrested or detained, and even people who are merely “suspected” of committing a crime or are deemed “likely” to do so.

It is common enough for law-enforcement agencies the world over to collect personal data from people they arrest and convict. But two issues particular to the Indian context make this Bill disturbing. First, the Government of India has repeatedly demonstrated a crippling fear of dissent and a willingness to wage open warfare against its opponents – presented, lately, as enemies more than adversaries. If the Bill were enacted, nothing would stop the police from, say, detaining protestors and collecting their personal data to use against them at a later date. Considering the way law enforcement has used such methods in the past, notably against crowds who were peacefully protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh in 2019-20, such a law would encourage this kind of behaviour, and further erode the already scant safeguards that exist against the government’s intrusion into citizens’ lives. The chilling effect of such a law would be severe. The Bill’s widening of the present law’s scope, giving the police a free hand to gather personal data from more or less anyone they choose, proves that this fear may not be unfounded.