UAPA – a tool to crush dissent

Following the events of 26th January in Delhi, the Delhi Police have stated that they were probing a “larger conspiracy and criminal design” behind the tractor rally by peasants on Republic Day and that this would be done under the stringent sections of the IPC relating to sedition and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Delhi police have said that their preliminary assessment suggests “there was a pre-conceived and well-coordinated plan” to break the terms of the agreement reached between police and farmer unions on the basis of which the latter were allowed to go ahead with the rally. According to reports, more than 50 peasant leaders of the on-going movement for repeal of the farm laws have been named in the FIRs. A senior police official has said that their “investigation” will come within the ambit of the Special Cell’s probe under the UAPA and sections of the IPC relating to sedition for their role in the larger conspiracy.

This is the normal pattern of detaining innocent citizens under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 2019 (UAPA). Those who are in the forefront of mass movements demanding their rights and demonstrating against unjust laws and official policies are alleged to be part of a “larger conspiracy”.

Those detained under UAPA based on allegations of participating in larger conspiracies in just the last three years include students of JNU, Jamia Millia and Aligarh Muslim University who were in the forefront of the protests against the CAA-NRC in 2019-20. They have been accused of conspiracy to instigate and carry out the communal violence that devastated the people of East Delhi in April 2020. All of them, except one or two who were given bail, remain in jail since the last several months. Those detained between June 2018 and September 2020 in the infamous Bhima-Koregaon case are 16 individuals including lawyers, poets, teachers, etc.. They have been arrested on grounds of participating in a conspiracy to incite inter-caste rivalry and further allegations were that they were involved in a “sinister conspiracy” to assassinate the Prime Minister. They remain in detention for over two years now.

Preventive detention has become the order of the day. A person is arrested merely because the security forces suspect that he or she may commit a crime in the future.

The police have developed the method of hiding the real reason for targeting someone under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).  They prepare a First Information Report alleging that the person being arrested is suspected of involvement in some criminal conspiracy or other.  The courts give the police indefinite time to produce all kinds of concocted evidence, or to keep on delaying the trial of the accused persons, which is permissible under these “counter-terrorism” laws. Meanwhile, the accused are denied bail and detained for months or even years on end.

Section 43D(5) of the UAPA says that a person accused of an offence under Chapters IV and VI (terrorism and belonging to a terrorist organisation) shall not be released on bail if the court, after perusing the case diary and police report, “is of the opinion that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusation against such person is prima facie true”.

Under the UAPA cases, the state agencies have 180 days or 6 months to file a charge sheet. The conviction rates under UAPA in 2018 shows 68% of the people arrested did not have a charge sheet filed. One cannot apply for bail until the charge sheet is filed. These harsh bail provisions in anti-terror laws can be traced back to Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).

Hundreds of people continue to be arrested under UAPA on a daily basis under the pretext of threatening national security. People are arrested and branded as terrorists merely on account of their political stand and ideological belief. To call for freedom from exploitation, caste discrimination, gender bias and national oppression is considered to be a terrorist crime. Many of those who have been arrested and indefinitely detained are fighters for the rights of workers, peasants, tribal people, women, dalits and oppressed nationalities within India. The detainees also include those who have been calling for the repeal of UAPA and their legal defendants!

In the name of protecting national security, citizens are arrested without any evidence of guilt.  The onus of proving innocence is imposed on the accused.  This is in complete violation of the principle that a person is innocent until he or she is proved to be a criminal, based on evidence and inquiry.

Over the years, people fighting for justice have been opposing this draconian law; across the country, they have raised the demand for an end to this and other similar anti-democratic laws like the National Security Act (NSA) and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

On 21st January, the several people and organisations opposing the UAPA came together in a consultation organised by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL). The participants included many past victims of the UAPA, family members of those who continue under detention, and lawyers and advocates who have defended those charged under UAPA. The consultation observed that peaceful activity like protests for justice has been equated with violent destructive “terrorist activity.” In effect, any expression of dissent, any mass protests against prevailing injustices and any demand for the repeal of draconian laws are being curbed by charging those participating in such actions under the UAPA. It is a weapon to silence all protests and struggles for justice.

History of UAPA

The UAPA was first enacted on December 30, 1967 The Act gave powers to the central government to impose all-India bans on associations and to declare associations that sought secession from India as ‘unlawful.’ The UAPA transformed to its present draconian form in 2004. There was widespread public protest against the then prevailing POTA, which was used to crush any opposition to the government through questionable and prolonged detentions with no formal charges filed. The government responded by repealing POTA but at the same time, it majorly amended the UAPA.

The amended Act made substantial changes to the definition of ‘unlawful activity’, included the definition of ‘terrorist act’ and ‘terrorist organisation’ from the repealed POTA, and also introduced the concept of a ‘terrorist gang’. Chapters IV, V and VI dealing with ‘punishment for terrorist activities’, ‘forfeiture of proceeds of terrorism’ and ‘terrorist organisations’ respectively, were heavily borrowed from the repealed POTA. So in effect, it was a continuation of POTA under a new name.

The next amendment was in 2008. This amendment gave authorities the power to detain persons without charge and increase the duration of police custody from 15 days to 30 days.

The same year, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was set up under the control of the Central Government to investigate the scheduled offences under which UAPA and sedition belong.

The Act was further amended through the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill 2019. It became an Act with the President’s assent on 8th August 2019. The major changes to the existing law was the fact that now individuals can be designated as terrorist, and the National Investigative Agency (NIA) is empowered to conduct raids anywhere without the relevant state government’s prior permission.

 

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