Arresting persons for their ideology is an attack on the Right to Conscience

It is a matter of great concern when people are arrested for their political stands and ideological beliefs.  Recent months have seen thousands of people being arrested for having participated in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which links citizenship with one’s religious belief.  Arrests of people for allegedly spreading “anti-national” ideas are continuing even in the midst of the lockdown to fight coronavirus. 

A person may or may not agree with a government policy or an act of Parliament.  To express a view which contradicts the official view is not a crime.  Someone who believes, for instance, that the rights of Kashmiris have been violated by the 2019 Act of Parliament, or that Muslims are threatened by the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, is not committing a crime.  To arrest persons for their beliefs, by calling them national traitors, is not acceptable. 

The police have developed the method of hiding the real reason for targeting someone under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) or some other so-called counter-terrorism law.  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.

One of the most notorious among the anti-democratic laws in our country is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). It gives the central armed forces full authority with complete immunity from any judicial process, to arrest, rape, torture and kill on mere suspicion, in areas declared “disturbed areas” by the state. It is a colonial era law under which countless people have been arrested and killed by the central armed troops in the North East and Kashmir.  In addition, there is the Sedition Act, the National Security Act and numerous state level laws like the MCOCA, KCOCA, the Public Safety Acts, etc., all of which allow preventive detention.

A recent example of the devious methods used to deprive political prisoners of their fundamental rights is the case of those who have been arrested under UAPA on the charge of having participated in a conspiracy to incite inter-caste violence at a mass rally on 1st January, 2018, in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra.  The rally was to commemorate the victory of a British army contingent consisting of dalit soldiers who defeated the Mahratta army at that place.  Violent clashes took place at that rally, reportedly between groups of Mahrattas and Dalits.

Nine persons -- Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves and Varavara Rao -- were arrested in 2018 and have been kept in prison ever since, even though no credible evidence has been produced by the police to establish their guilt.  At the time they were arrested, the official propaganda was that these persons were involved in a Maoist conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Modi. The First Information Report (FIR) registered by the police, however, focused on the alleged conspiracy to incite inter-caste violence at Bhima Koregaon.

Two more persons – Guatam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde – have been arrested on the same charge a few days ago, increasing the number of persons arrested under this dubious charge from 9 to 11.

Hundreds of people continue to be arrested on a daily basis under one or another so-called counter-terrorism law.  The victims include journalists, trade union leaders, student leaders and human rights activists.  People are arrested and branded as terrorists merely on account of their political stand and ideological belief. To call for freedom from caste discrimination, gender bias and national oppression is considered to be a terrorist crime.  People are arrested simply for possessing books written by Karl Marx or V.I. Lenin.  Many of those who fight for the rights of workers, peasants, tribal people, women, dalits and oppressed nationalities within India have been arrested and indefinitely detained under one or another counter-terrorism law.

The Preamble of the Constitution of India proclaims that the State would secure to all its citizens “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”.  Article 25 says, “Subject to public order, morality and health … all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion”.  However, the same Constitution perpetuates all old colonial laws, and permits Parliament to enact new laws providing for preventive detention. 

No society can flourish if it prevents its members from even thinking and expressing their thoughts without fear.  Every person has the right to uphold and express his or her beliefs and views, as long as it does not violate the right of others.

The struggle to affirm the Right to Conscience as a universal right of every woman and man has a long history in the Indian subcontinent, encompassing the Bhakti and Sufi movements which spanned many centuries.  During the struggle against British colonial rule, the fighters for freedom, including the revolutionaries of the Hindustan Ghadar Party and the Hindustan Republican Association, proudly unfurled the banner of the Right to Conscience.

The Right to Conscience includes not only the right to religious beliefs but to any kind of ideological belief.  In today’s conditions, it must be accepted that a person has the right to believe in Hindutva or in Secularism, in Marxism-Leninism or Maoism.  Any political party has the right to advocate and to criticise any ideology or political position.  However, the State has no right to arrest somebody merely because he or she believes in and propagates a particular ideology. The use of police powers to suppress political and ideological opposition to the governing party means to criminalize dissent.  It is not acceptable in a modern democracy.  It is an attack on the right to conscience. 

 The continuing arrests and indefinite detention by the central authorities of persons who have committed no crime except to express their opposition to the government expose the anti-democratic nature of the Indian State and its “rule of law”.  While the Preamble of the Constitution promises to secure liberty of thought and expression to all citizens, the reality on the ground is that the right to conscience is violated on a daily basis.

 The State is duty bound to ensure the inviolability of the right to conscience.  We must fight for repeal of all the draconian laws which provide for preventive detention as a necessary first step in this direction. We must fight for a clean and complete break with the colonial past.  We must fight for a Constitution that forbids preventive detention and the arrest of anyone on account of his or her political stand or ideological belief.

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