The last few days of August witnessed the false framing, attempted defamation and eventual house arrest performed by the Maharashtra police, of several activists, lawyers and organizations, for being vocal about human rights in India. This, and the protest in reaction to this, stirred especially urban India emotionally into demonstrating a rare voluntary political involvement. Civilians from a wide social range—in shock at the blatant violation of law by the so-called preservers of law—raised their voices demanding release of the arrested activists while, in order to show solidarity, labeling themselves ‘Urban Naxals’—a term coined by the ruling government for those it suspects of nurturing ‘unlawful associations’ with ‘banned’ ‘terrorist’ organizations.
This specific incident highlights—and for good reasons—why it makes sense to admit that India and the rest of the world are going through a dark and oppressive political era. However, such violations of human rights via legal amendments are nothing new or especially shocking in India. The counterterrorism legislations were, are, and will continue to be misused by the state irrespective of which mainstream political party is in power, as is clear from history as well as contemporary events.
For example, the atrocious MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1971) was implemented against the Janata Party leaders (among hundreds of others) during emergency, and repealed once the Janata Party came to power, only to come back as old wine in several new bottles through implementation of grossly misused laws. TADA (1985-1995), NSA (1980), POTA (2002-2004—implemented ironically by none other than the Vajpayi govt.), state-wise amendments of AFSPA (1958, 83, 90), NIA (National Investigation Agency Act, 2009) are some such examples. So is UAPA (1967). Many of these laws are amended forms of oppressive British laws attempting to criminalizing the nationalistic movements and (thus) are against ideology and association.
UAPA, in particular, retains verbatim sections or borrows heavily from its problematic predecessors like TADA and POTA. A large part of it amounts to vague definitions around ‘terrorism’ that can be conveniently misused by the state, and infringement of basic human rights. Notable among the parts from previous counterterrorism acts that UAPA did not retain (2004 amendment) is existence of sunset clauses that forces ceasing of the law if it remains ineffectual over a certain time-period.
The Indian state is, however, not keen on letting UAPA go ineffectual. The Indian Armed Forces and the Police as state machinery relentlessly attempt to frame human rights activists in any discipline (political activists, civil rights activists, lawyers, journalists, academicians, cultural activists etc.) as well as civilians from ethnic, caste and religious minority sections under this act. UAPA allows these forces to eliminate the arrested persons under the shadow of national defamation and the ghost of terror, as well as coerce confessions more effectively thanks to how UAPA allows draconian measures such as 180 days of incarceration without charge sheets and strict restrictions against bail. Several attempts by activists to enforce repeal of this law has remained fruitless so far. While some states such as Kerala are considering a dilution on the rampant usage of the law, ‘troubled’ states like Manipur, Assam, Chhattisgarh and other states such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu continue to (mis)use it against any dissenting voice.
Unfortunately so far, it seems, only a certain amount of sensationalization in the media and a list of prominent established names can stir us, temporarily, from the otherwise prevailing stupor, despite the increasing atrocity on people and environment performed by the ruling powers in collaboration with the corporate. Binayak Sen’s arrest is already a forgotten history to the media. The unthinkable penalization—through UAPA—of G. N. Saibaba barely makes the headline anymore. Even the five arrested recently in the Bhima Koregaon case did not create such a massive avalanche of protest. Other recent but smaller regional cases of UAPA arrests such as Thirumurugan Gandhi’s arrest (along with a sedition charge and other charges) on the flimsy basis of him expressing solidarity on the Palestinian struggle barely reach the national audience. The story is the same, or worse, in the rural and tribal belts, among minorities, where the state atrocity in the name of terrorism barely creates a ripple among the (non-)readership of the news. It is such lack of solidarity on our part that laws like UAPA thrive on, preying on our ignorance.
In this light, a group of activists and sensitive civilians all over India, is publishing an extensive document on UAPA. Soon, it will be translated in several regional languages. This needs to be circulated widely and freely so that we can—in all awareness—resist and fight for repealing this law as well as other atrocities that the governments wish to impose on us.