When it comes to Indian customs and laws, the rumour mills really get cranking. Is your hand going to be chopped off for stealing? No. Are lynch mobs a common form of justice? Also no. Can you be arrested for a quick hug in the street? Unfortunately, yes.
Here’s a list of ground rules compiled for your benefit so you know exactly what’s coming. More importantly, familiarize yourself with the legal terms so you know when you’re really guilty and when you’re being harassed by corrupt authorities. As a foreigner, you’re likely to be the target of policemen or locals trying to take advantage pf your ignorance, so it’s important to know your rights.
Legal rights of Women
- Only female officers can escort women to the police station. If there isn’t one, DON’T GO
- Not only do male officers have no right to escort a woman but she can refuse to go to the police station between 6 pm to 6 am. In case of a serious crime, a written permit from the magistrate is required for male officers to escort her
- Women can lodge complaints through emails at firstname.lastname@example.org, our National Commission for Women.
- Guidelines issued by the Delhi Police entitle women to the privilege of registering a complaint via email or even through post if she can’t go to the police station. Just do a quick internet search to get the contact details of your local police station
- PDA: A lot of the issues in Indian law stem from the fact that the vague wording of the Indian Penal Code gives the cops an unfair amount of wiggle room. While in the cities you might find rows of couples making out beneath skimpy scarves by the shoreline, more rural areas can tend to object to even holding hands or a peck on the cheek. Always try to gauge the atmosphere first, and if reprimanded by a police officer be apologetic to the point of grovelling, as rudeness and high-handedness will get you nowhere. Nudity or going topless in public is never an option at any beach, and on certain beaches in South India which are home to religious sites bikinis are best avoided as well to avoid giving offence.
- Public Nuisance: Section 268 defines this as “an illegal omission which causes any common injury, danger or annoyance to the public or to the people in general.” Note the use of the term ‘annoyance’, again widely open for interpretation. Avoid disturbing residents with loud noises, public drunkenness or anything that could be construed as vandalism. Sexual harassment is never appreciated either.
- Homosexuality: In 2013, the Indian Supreme Court brought back Section 377, a controversial law that penalizes “unnatural sex”. While most see this as a direct criminalization of homosexuality, it has two further consequences: LGBTQ individuals who DO NOT indulge in any kind of sexual activity while in the country may still find themselves harassed if their sexuality is made public. That said, there are several NGOs and other organizations working for the community that will always lend support such as The Lawyers Collective. The second implication is that straight couples caught engaging in anal and oral sex are technically also punishable under this law, which deems only peno-vaginal penetration as legal. While it’s highly unlikely that the police are going to burst into your room and pull back the covers, it’s always good to know exactly where you stand with the law.
- Recording: You obviously want a trove of videos and photographs to take home, and India provides a multitude of photo ops, but try and be a little careful in sensitive areas. Military and government zones, crowed airports and railway stations are always on high alert for security threats, you don’t want to be mistaken for one. If there’s any chance you’re carrying binoculars, put those away as well.
- Alcohol: The legal age for drinking varies from state to state from 18 to 25, so do some local research before you go. A distinction is usually made between mild liquor (beer and wine) and hard (spirits). Avoid any local liquors not vetted by your hotel manager or tour guide, and again, no public drunkenness. If an election is nearing, alcohol may be banned for a couple of days prior, and days of local religious or political significance are also usually dry. Some states are dry year round, or require a permit to buy, transport or consume alcohol. Carriage of alcohol between states is often illegal due to the varying alcohol laws, you may be stopped for a random check.
- Drugs: Unequivocally illegal. Cigarettes and chewing tobacco are available on every street corner and don’t carry much social stigma, but for anything else there is a minimum sentence of 6 months for possession of small amounts deemed for personal consumption only, and a 10-year sentence for possession of anything sufficient for trafficking. Convicted offenders can expect fines and a minimum jail sentence of 10 years.
- Beef: In 2015, several states declared a blanket ban on export, import and sale of beef and beef products, a continuation of the prevention of cow slaughter laws. Deliberate killing or maiming of a cow can attract a five year prison sentence, so be careful when you drive!
- Transport and possession of firearms, antiquities, electronic equipment, local currency, ivory, gold objects and pornographic materials are all regulated by the government. Non-residents are prohibited from importing or exporting the Indian rupee, while limits are imposed on residents. For more information, consult India’s Central Board of Excise and Customs. Antiques, specifically, must be registered with local police, along with a photograph of each item. Satellite phones are illegal.
- Carry your passport with you at all times, you will require it for all check-ins at hotels or airports. If you’re brave enough to drive in Indian traffic, make sure you have an international driving permit and a helmet for motorcyclists and passengers.
The Indian legal process is cumbersome and lengthy and you should do your best to avoid any brush with the law. Individuals arrested on a major offence can languish in jail for years before a verdict is reached, and Indian red-tapism can hamper with your consulate’s attempts to help. Try not to forget that the death penalty is still awarded in this country for the ‘rarest of rare’ cases, another excellent example of our tendency for vague wording. Always keep in mind your rights and defend your innocence, but courteously.
Now that you know the legal dos and don’ts, Happy Travelling to you!