‘Prosecution Itself is Punishment for Them’

The Modi government has a poor record of jailing civil rights activists and political dissenters, amounting to silencing of dissent

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 19, the Press Club of India (PCI), adjacent to the newly-constructed Parliament, was jam-packed with activists, lawyers, scholars, students and civil society members. They all gathered at the national capital to speak against the state repression, violation of civil rights and misuse of the investigative agencies. Eminent lawyers Prashant Bhushan, Mihir Desai civil rights activists K. Ravi Chander, Prof. Laxman Gaddam, feminist activist Poonam Kaushik, Delhi University professors Nandita Narain and Saroj Giri were among the key speakers. The theme of the public meeting was ‘Indian democracy and the suppression of democratic voices.’

At the meeting, serious concerns were raised about the attacks on the civil liberty of people and the indiscriminate use of draconian laws by the state to silence its critics. The political misuse of the investigative agencies by the government was also condemned. But the main focus of the meeting was the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 (UAPA). This law, with even more stringent provisions was brought in as a permanent counter-terror law in 2004 after the repeal of POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2003). Activists and other speakers demanded that the UAPA, amended in 2008 and 201 since, should be repealed without any delay.

One of the reasons for demanding its repeal is the way the police and investigative agencies have interpreted the act of terrorism. For example, the criticisms of the government and the top political executive have been seen as “disaffection against India” and the dissenters have been charged with cases under UAPA. Once a person gets arrested under the UAPA, the chances of getting bail become remote. This is because in the UAPA case, the responsibility to prove innocence is put on the accused. This goes against the liberal notion of jurisprudence, where granting bail is a rule and keeping one in jail is treated as an exception.

The spirit of the law, however, is reversed in the UAPA case. In the normal circumstance, an accused is presumed innocent, unless she/he is proven guilty. But in the UAPA case, the burden to prove one’s innocence is laid on the accused. As has been seen, the accused arrested under the UAPA cases have spent several years in jail without the filing of the chargesheet by the police and the beginning of the trial by the court.

During the Freedom Struggle, the issue of civil liberty figured prominently and the nationalist leaders spoke strongly against its violation by the colonial state. But the post-Independence democratic state has not only continued with the colonial sedition law but added a few extra-constitutional laws to its quiver. Several petitions challenging the constitutionality of the UAPA are pending in the Supreme Court, yet to be deliberated upon.

Bhushan is of the opinion that the investigative agencies have been widely misused by the ruling establishment. For example, an overwhelming number of cases slapped by the ED are against the opposition leaders. In the meeting, he, therefore, reiterated the need for an independent functioning of the investigative agencies and employing a fair selection process for choosing their top officers.

At the time when the meeting was being held at the Press Club in New Delhi, another campaign, for the release of the Adivasi Rights journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh was going on. He has completed a year in jail. Last year on July 17, 2022, Rupesh was arrested by Jharkhand police. He was charged with different sections of IPC as well as UAPA. At present, he is in Patna’s Beur Jail.

Human rights activists argue that Rupesh’s only “crime” is that he, as a journalist, wrote stories against the ongoing plunder by the corporate houses. He highlighted the violation of the special provisions enshrined in the Constitution for the protection of the Adivasi lands. After he was jailed, the family suffered hardship.

Her 38-year-old wife Ipsa Shatakshi was fired from her teaching job at a private school, a few months after his arrest. Facing a financial crisis, she has to offer private tuition to feed his family and pay for the education of her six-year-old son, Agrim. Besides, she needs resources to fight the legal battle for justice for her husband.

While we are aware of the case of Rupesh, there are other prisoners arrested under draconian laws about whom the mainstream press hardly writes a few words.

The violation of the civil rights of the political prisoners of the Bhima Koregaon cases is yet to become an issue in the mainstream media. The accused have spent almost five years without any substantive investigation by the police. It seems that the main motive of the police in the UAPA cases is not to investigate the allegation but to delay the process so that the prisoners keep languishing in jail year after year.

Such a negative trend has also been seen in the 2020 Delhi-riots cases. Umar Khalid has been denied bail even after he has spent one thousand days in jail. Sharjeel Imam and Meeran Haider, other anti-CAA activists who were arrested much before Umar, are yet to get out of jail on bail.

According to one estimate, over one thousand people are put in jail under different cases related to the Delhi riots and about whom the media hardly report anything. Thus prosecution itself has become punishment for most of these detainees who may be set free by the courts finding them innocent.

While there are enough provisions in the IPC to punish criminals and maintain law and order, the state has enacted several extra-constitutional laws to punish dissenters. The draconian laws are often justified in the name of national security, but it is largely misused against the most vulnerable sections and the political opponents of the government. Such a policy does not work for national integration but gives birth to discontent in society.

The figures from the National Crime Records Bureau for 2019 show that the people arrested under the UAPA have seen an increase of over 72% from 2015 when the Modi Government came to power. A democratic polity is different from an authoritarian regime in the sense that the former ensures the protection of civil rights.

(First published in News Trail, Bengaluru)

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist)


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