Over a hundred and fifty people from all over India, and a few Indians abroad too, participated in an online event organised by Lok Raj Sangathan on the pressing issue of the draconian UAPA.
It began with a presentation explaining the history of the UAPA and other similar laws like TADA and POTA. It showed how authoritarian laws were made more repressive over the years; explained the provisions in the UAPA at present which render it totally brutal and violative of basic human rights. Successive amendments gave authorities powers to hold people behind bars without even framing charges against them initially for 15 days, then 30 and finally up to 6 months! The definition of “terrorist act” has been kept deliberately vague so that the authorities can incarcerate anyone whom they wish to; this definition has been expanded to include even economic offences. Now even individuals, not just organisations, can be declared to be “terrorist”. The NIA has been given sweeping powers to investigate offences under the UAPA anywhere in India even without the consent of the State Government. It is almost impossible to get bail! The burden is on the person accused, to prove his or her innocence – against all principles of natural justice!
The courts give police / NIA indefinite time to produce all kinds of concocted evidence, or to keep on delaying the trial of the accused persons. The conviction rate in the UAPA is dismal. 5922 held under UAPA in 2016-19, only 132 convicted (NCRB report – Feb 2021) – just 2.2%! Essentially it allows punishment without trial or conviction! People have been arrested for having books of Marx, Lenin & Shaheed Bhagat Singh; for advocating the rights of workers, peasants, tribals, women, Dalits, and other oppressed sections. Several people who protested against the CAA have been booked in Delhi for alleged conspiracy in instigating the Northeast Delhi violence of Feb 2020; protesting farmers have also been threatened with arrest under UAPA. Besides people arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon case, thousands have been arrested for criticising government policies, youth opposing injustice and state violence in Punjab, Kashmir and the Norhteast have been targeted; so, it is clearly being used to repress people protesting government policy and fighting for their rights.
Mr Raghavan, President of the Lok Raj Sangathan, mentioned that the CJI had recently spoken about “good” and “bad” laws. So, a law by itself doesn’t have any utility unless it protects the interests of the people. People are protesting against many things like farm laws, CAA – which the government doesn’t want; hence they need a stringent “bad” law to suppress people. Why is it that when a law like POTA or TADA gets repealed due to the pressure of the people, the government just as easily enacts or strengthens another like the UAPA? The government wants a law giving them unbridled arbitrary powers to put people in jail without trial – therefore the actual conviction rate is a dismal 2%! How is it that the Executive has monopoly powers to make such laws? Yesterday, many retired judges said that such a law must be repealed. But they too are powerless – ordinary people don’t have any voice! The opposition parties claim that they are against these laws, but they have been unable to stop these laws from being enacted. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few ministers in the Cabinet; this shows the nature of “democracy” where people do not have any power. It is good that people are speaking up against such laws. How do we take the struggle forward?
Senior Advocate Mr Prashant Bhushan said the death of Fr Stan Swamy in custody had made people all over the country aware of the utterly barbaric character of the UAPA. In an event organised by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms, four retired judges of the Supreme Court and one of the High Court pointed out that the UAPA violates Constitutional Right to Life, since it is impossible to get bail. Due to the vague definition of “terrorist act”, any protest can be termed unlawful. Any organisation or individual can be declared to be “terrorist”. Because of the Watali case judgement, courts are not supposed to examine if the evidence presented is admissible in court when deciding bail applications! These days, people’s phones and computers can be hacked into, and spurious incriminatory evidence can be planted, as seems to have happened with many of those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case. With Pegasus software, the government can turn anyone’s phone into a spying device besides accessing all the information in it. The NIA acts only on instructions from the Union Government and is not independent at all, just like the CBI and ED; these are used to harass and persecute people.
Mr M.G. Devasahayam, retired IAS officer, said UAPA and earlier black laws like the MISA confer extraordinary powers to the state authority without oversight. An independent prosecution agency which is separate from the police, whose job should be confined to investigating crimes, is needed. About 44% of elected politicians have criminal records. Money power decides the outcome of elections. The neoliberal economic policies have pushed 60% of people in India into mere survival mode. They have no means to deal with the injustice being done to them.
Dr S Q R Ilyas, National President of the Welfare Party of India pointed out that over 67,000 people were arrested under TADA with just 1% conviction rate. UAPA and sedition laws are being used against those who oppose government policies, journalists, and students. Cardinal principles of natural justice such as being deemed innocent till proven guilty are violated and the burden of proving oneself innocent is on the accused! Basic right to bail is denied! Such laws have no place in a democracy like India! UAPA should be repealed! Handsome compensation should be paid to people who have been unjustly imprisoned and police and officials responsible for ruining their lives should be made accountable.
Mr Rajvinder Singh Bains, advocate in the Punjab Haryana High Court said a law like UAPA was being used to put anyone who opposes those in power, including teachers and lawyers, in jail! Unlike earlier laws like TADA, no crime needs to be actually committed to become an offence under UAPA. False evidence can easily be planted in phones and computers. He gave examples from his practice wherein people were accused of being members of banned organisations on the basis of literature found with them – often public domain material – which is not even proof of membership! Protest against such laws is needed. The protests by farmers going on for eight months now has put the government on the back foot. We need to put the government on the backfoot too, by building the mass movement against UAPA. Our unity will be our strength.
Mr Chandru Chawla a professional and a political commentator, asked whether terrorism has come down because of UAPA? Were protests against NRC and CAA acts of terror? The message that Government wants to give with UAPA to students, teachers, parents is that dissent is not permissible! In UAPA, the process itself is the punishment. So many lives have been destroyed. It’s a triple whammy – cost of fighting cases, loss of livelihood, loss of future prospects. UAPA type laws need to be repealed, adequate handsome compensation needs to be given to victims unjustly incarcerated and those responsible for it need to be punished; constitutional guarantees for freedom is needed and lastly an independent prosecution agency distinct from the police is necessary.
After the invited speakers, several participants intervened. One participant pointed out that it’s not just BJP which has used laws like UAPA; in fact, their origin is in Congress times! He also said the concept of integration into Union of India is not accepted in some parts. It is clear people themselves have no power. Dr. Venkatesh said that UAPA patently needs to be repealed; such laws are only intended to stifle protest and dissent. It’s clear people don’t have any real power and we must fight for their empowerment and to make them real masters. Baskar from Chennai said that the Executive is very powerful. But when it comes to rights of workers guaranteed under laws, the government officials say that they can’t force industry owners to follow them – so there is no justice! One problem is that the electoral system is totally dominated by money power. Police and judiciary too should come under the control of the people; people must be able to enact laws! Sovereignty must come into people’s hands!
Ashok, from Bengaluru, stressed on the need to form organisations to oppose these laws, educate the people about them and their rights, and the need to develop democracy further to empower people. Girish from Mumbai said it was necessary to make the authorities more accountable. Gautam agreed that the law needed to be repealed, especially because of its’ harsh provisions such as 180 days’ time to file charge-sheet and denial of bail. Another participant said the law needed to be repealed through a mass upsurge of the people. He hoped more such programs would be organised in the future. Mr Pravin Patel from the Forum for Fast Justice said he agreed with the main points made by various speakers and stressed on the need for unity of all since the task cannot be done by just one organisation. He looked forward to cooperation with the LRS.
Birju Nayak pointed out that British colonialists had enacted laws to suppress Indian people and loot the wealth of the country; Indian state used laws like TADA, POTA which were opposed hence repealed but brought back in under another name – UAPA! Who will take responsibility for custodial deaths like that of Fr Stan? What about people whose lives have been destroyed in custody? Accountability of police and officials needs to be ensured. Lokesh from Delhi stressed on the need to build a movement against such repressive laws and requested more such events be organised. People have no power – they can neither make laws nor repeal black laws. Not just police but judiciary and executive too need to be made accountable to the people, he said.
Mr Puttaraju said the UAPA needs to be confronted legally, through mass movements, and by increasing people’s awareness, especially through media campaigns. Other participants also welcomed the initiative and asked Lok Raj Sangathan to organise such events regularly.
Summarising the proceedings, Ms Sucharita said Indian people had faced police brutality at Jallianwala Bagh under an occupying colonial power which used preventive detention laws to repress its colonial subjects. Unfortunately, we see that the the same colonial edifice of repressive laws exists today and present governments too use similar laws! Government officials, judiciary, police need to be made accountable and compensate victims of unjust incarceration. It is clear that people have no power; no matter which party gets elected it is the rich who rule. We need to build the strong fighting unity of toiling people all over to change the situation.