Colonial laws still rule after independence

The Indian Supreme court landmark ruling this year, legalising gay sex overturns an colonial-era law otherwise known as Section 377, illustrates well the pernicious impact still made by colonial laws in many independent states from British colonial rule. Making the Mughal’s before the British Raj & East India Company seen even more liberal now as they actually combined a number of pre-existing laws of the Delhi Sultanate into the Fatawa-e-Alamgiri. 

Very often it is the draconian powers left by the British in its former colonies which have been used after independence particularly during civil strife to stifle the opposition to the government in power. As regulations drawn up by past colonial administrators are still being used, till this day, to prosecute government opponents, detain them without trial, prohibit demonstrations and shut down newspapers. Yet the rule of law, Westminster-style democracy and strict standards in public life are often seen as among the important legacies of the British Empire.

In Bangladesh alleged attacks on Islamic society and religious feelings causing outrage amongst Muslim fundamentalism, has seen the government there charging people and organisations under a colonial-era law of “offending religious feelings”.

In Pakistan, the authorities have made virtually no changes to the administrative system set up by the British to deal with the wild tribes of the North- west frontier. Instead of attempting to impose an alien legal system on the tribesmen, the Raj gave local officials almost unlimited discretionary powers. These remain in force till this day. 

In Palestine, the system of administrative detentions created in the 1940s is still routinely used in Israel’s occupied territories. It is often said that Israel has two systems of law – one for Israelis and one for the Palestinians. The latter is based on the British emergency regulations and it is felt to lend it respectability.

Thus the rule of law, Westminster-style democracy and strict standards in public life are often seen as among the important legacies of the British Empire are largely a myth. As across the world regulations drawn up by past colonial administrators are still being used, sometimes decades after independence, to prosecute government opponents, detain them without trial, prohibit demonstrations and shut down newspapers.

Unfortunately independence constitutions nearly always preserved all existing laws and ordinances, no matter how arbitrarily they had come into existence. As a result of this historical role, Britain has been at a disadvantage when complaining about human rights abuses in many parts of the world. Indira Gandhi famously point out that the powers she used to declare emergency rule in India in 1975 dated from the Raj. This has even been the case when countries have been pushing “Asian values” as in Malaysia, yet it has had made extensive use of the more authoritarian side of their colonial legacy, again in the form of emergency powers. The activist & politician ( and soon to become PM ) Anwar Ibrahim was jailed by the same sodomy laws that the Indians recently repealed. 

Furthermore, it is often thought that former colonies were all given democracy and turned into dictatorship actually the colonial administrations were very authoritarian, with no check on their powers apart from rather tenuous legislative supervision at home, if at all interested. In Zambia, a state of emergency was declared shortly before independence in 1964. It remained in force for another 27 years as Kaunda used his inherited colonial powers to suppress opposition. Not surprisingly when an election was finally held, he lost.
Quite honestly, once a former colony becomes independent it is up to the new state how much to preserve or not. It is not at all convincing to blame the former colonial power for such abuses afterwards. So even when the British lost the will to enforce authoritarian colonial laws, heralding the age of Empire coming to an end, unluckily for its former subjects, many of its successors seem determined to keep its worst aspects alive.