The slew of cases under UAPA against individuals amply reveal how this law militates against civil liberties and principles of justice
The liberal use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in targeting journalists in Kashmir, students of Jamia Millia Islamia and some of those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act with charges of provoking violence, even though there is no evidence, is shocking and reveals the very undemocratic character of the law. The law can be weaponized against any individual who can be branded terrorist or terrorist supporter, it has no provisions of arbitrary bail and bail after arrests are difficult to seek, which literally means that any targeted person can spend years in jail before he or she can be acquitted. The UAPA was already a stringent law but amendments made to it a year ago have further armed it with draconian provisions that are far lethal than TADA or its later variant POTA, under which many people were unjustifiably detained for years. Successive governments at the Centre and in the various states abused their powers by using these laws against political adversaries and minorities from time to time. The laws were finally eased out because the conviction rate in such cases was a mere one percent. In the amendment to UAPA, the state has now been given the power to name individuals as “terrorists”.
Universally, three broad principles are accepted for deeming any act as an “act of terror” – deadly impact, intent to create fear among public or sabotage government actions and an ideological agenda. The UAPA extends the definition of terrorists to include the death of, or injuries to any person, damage to any property and an attempt to overawe any public functionary by means of criminal force. Much worse, it gives unbridled power to the government to brand any ordinary citizen or activist a terrorist without the actual commission of such acts on mere grounds of any act deemed ‘likely to threaten’ or ‘likely to strike terror in people’. This virtually appears to be the case in the registration of cases under UAPA against two journalists in Kashmir and several student leaders spearheading the anti-CAA campaigns with no evidence of a terror trail.
Can advocacy or expressing an idea and an opinion be deemed an “act of terror”? These are the ambiguities that the amended UAPA does not address. Not much attention was paid to the draconian and dangerous impact of such laws. But the recent cases should shed some light how this law goes against the very cardinal principle of law and justice where every accused is deemed innocent till proven so. Under UAPA, the onus shifts on the accused himself. Besides, there is no empirical evidence that harsh laws that do not conform to democratic principles are successful in combatting terrorism, which is a worldwide phenomenon. Previously TADA and POTA, intended to fight terrorism, not only ended up as tools of intimidation and harassment but also failed to make any dent to terrorism. The UAPA will further erode the civil liberties guaranteed by the Indian constitution. Its wider implications have not been understood even by many of its advocates and supporters, because as power shifts, it can be weaponized against anybody for the most flimsy reasons. The recent cases need to be dropped and the law which is unfair, unreasonable and gives the state arbitrary provisions needs to be struck down.