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UAPA: Single-window solution to curb dissent, journalism

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The arrest of a journalist en route to Hathras has unveiled the draconian features of the Act, under which anyone can be arrested for a period of six months without any proof of anti-national activities. It raises serious questions about violation of human rights.

By Neeraj Mishra

THE tragedy in Hathras exposed numerous infringements of the law by those who are actually meant to uphold it. Uttar Pradesh always had a reputation for being the one state where such incidents are fairly routine but the horrific incident and its aftermath has put the Yogi Adityanath government on the mat and exposed another serious issue highlighted by the arbitrary arrest of a journalist who was on his way to Hathras.

The journalist, Siddique Kappan, was picked up by the state police before he could reach Hathras and booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA. The police version is that Kappan, who was arrested with three other associates, was out to create caste disturbance in Hathras in conjunction with a Kerala-based organisation Popular Front of India.

Kappan hails from Kerala. The police report also claimed that Rs 100 crore had been sent from Gulf countries and it also produced a badly edited email purporting to be from the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

While the conspiracy theory has as many holes in it as a sieve, Kappan was accused of being a member of or connected with the PFI, an organisation which is not banned, as of now. The central government has been trying desperately to put PFI on the list of banned organisations for indulging in anti-national activities but so far it has been unable to collect sufficient material or proof to back its theory. Whatever his connection, or not, the fact remains that Kappan can remain in jail for the next six months without getting any opportunity to disprove the charges slammed against him. The police, if they want to, can use numerous methods by which it can delay filing the charge sheet legally for at least 90 days. The Supreme Court has set a date for a hearing a month from now, ensuring that he stays in for that period at least.

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Sadly, courts have not followed a uniform policy when it comes to granting bail or anticipatory bail. UAPA provisions are perhaps worse than the infamous TADA and POTA that were opp­osed by all parties most vociferously by the BJP when the party was in opposition. TADA and POTA, both considered anti-terrorist laws, lapsed or were withdrawn and though UAPA came into existence in 1967 it is being used quite frequently and indiscriminately now. Originally enacted to ban “organisations” suspected of being involved in anti-national activities, the Act has been strengthened many times since 2004 when POTA was repealed. All the draconian provisions of POTA are now incorporated in UAPA.

As things stand today, law enforcement agencies can arrest any individual under UAPA and they are not even required to reveal why the individual has been arrested or provide proof even to the person himself. And this for a legally sanctified period of six months! Even mere suspicion can be a reason for arrest and being thrown in prison. In recent months, several activists, lawyers and professors have been arrested under UAPA, and now journalists have been added to the list. Many are branded as the all-embracing “Urban Naxals”.

A total of 3,005 cases were registered in the country under UAPA in 2016, 2017 and 2018 while 3,974 people were arrested under the Act, Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy informed the Rajya Sabha recently.

In a written reply to a question, Reddy said that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is the central agency that compiles the data on crimes as reported by states and Union Territories, and publishes the figures in its annual publication “Crime in India”. “The latest published report is of the year 2018. As per the report, a total of 922, 901 and 1,182 cases were registered, and 999, 1,554 and 1,421 persons were arrested under the anti-terror law, i.e., the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, in the country during 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively,” said Reddy.

The NCRB statistics show that 93 cases of sedition were filed in 2019, a 165 percent jump from 2016. In 2019, 1,226 UAPA cases were filed, a 33 percent increase from 2016.

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) defines sedition as any signs, visible representations, or words, spoken or written, that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite disaffection” towards the government. The definition of sedition dates back to colonial times and referred to critics of the British administration.

In independent India, it has become a convenient tool to curb freedom of speech and expression. UAPA is an anti-terror legislation, meant for exceptional circumstances. That it has been increasingly used can only suggest that it has become a weapon to be used against the government’s critics. Before Kappan, UAPA was used to arrest Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Umar Khalid, in a case related to the communal violence in Northeast Delhi in February this year.

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Since UAPA permits detention without charge for up to 180 days, it has become a convenient tool to silence dissidents. Such long periods of pre-trial detention can easily get around the safeguards enshrined in the criminal justice system and allow the centre, or the states, to arrest those suspected of committing crimes without the onus to prove the allegations.

UAPA is just one deterrent for journalists, they are now being targeted by various state governments from something as simple as disturbing communal harmony under Sections 504 and 155 IPC to imaginative use of the new Information Technology Act.

The latter can be used against anyone active on social media. Social media provides the freedom of opportunity and expression which the institutions that journalists work for may not allow. So even a mere sub-divisional magistrate can act against any journalist for a social media post or video which in his/her estimation is either fake news or disturbs local peace.

The pressure against journalists like Kappan was revealed during the court proceedings in Lucknow over the Hathras case where the police refrained from mentioning any conspiracy probably because the Rs 100 crore theory and the alleged emails could not possibly have stood the test of evidence. Journalists are beginning to educate themselves on provisions of various laws and acts, from UAPA to defamation, to deal with the additional pressure. It is unlikely that the pressure will ease any time soon.

Lead Picture: wikimedia.org

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