Essay on Criminal Law Courts in Ancient India

The Hindu period in India witnessed an era when the administration of criminal justice was personally supervised by the King. Some Hindu rulers, however, preferred to appoint special judicial officers called Mohadandadhikari or Nayayamimansak or Dandadhish for imparting justice in criminal cases. An Appeal in such cases lay with the King who was the final judge to alter the sentence or order acquittal of the offender or grant him royal pardon.

According to ancient law-givers, punishing the criminals and resisting perpetration of crime was a solemn duty (Dharma) of the King, because he took from his subjects the price of giving them protection in the shape of rent, taxes and duties. The King and his officers were supposed to hunt out the criminals whether or not any complaint was made, so that law-abiding subjects could lead a secured and peaceful life.

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In Vedic age, society was composed of patriarchal families and the Grahapati i.e., the head of the family, decided all matters of disputes relating to household. Manusmriti empowered a Grahapati to correct his wife, son, servant, pupil and a younger brother with rope or a small shoot of a cane on the back part of the body but not on a sensitive part by any means. Vedic literature nowhere mentions the King as a judge either in civil or criminal cases.

The Dharamsutras and the Kautilya’s Arthashastra, however, present a more detailed and well developed system of criminal adjudication prevailing in their time. The Nitishastra mentions King as the fountain of justice and it was his sacred duty to punish the wrong-doers and if he flinched from discharging this duty, he was bound to go to hell. Manu, the law-giver also mentions about the art of secret intelligence practiced in his times for the prevention and detection of crimes. The King had his own net-work of secret intelligence to keep himself informed about the nature and incidence of crimes. He also awarded adequate punishment to the criminals.

The Kautilya’s Arthashastra, written around 310 B.C., is a monumental work which provides systematic information about crime investigation and punishment of offenders as also crime-control devices. Throughout this period, the administration of criminal justice was the sole responsibility of the ruler who sought assistance from his deputies to apprehend and punish the offenders. However, a regular hierarchy of criminal courts was yet to evolve in the indigenous Hindu kingdoms.