Rights Activists and Senior Lawyers Demand Immediate Abolition of UAPA

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The meeting called by Jan Hastakshep said draconian laws like the UAPA have no place in a democratic polity.

Abdul Bari Masoud | Clarion India

NEW DELHI – Prominent rights activists and lawyers have demanded the immediate abolition of draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). They also demanded that all persons imprisoned under the Act be released forthwith.

They maintained that these oppressive laws have no place in a democratic polity.

 At a well-attended public meeting organised by Jan Hastakshep (an anti-fascist forum) at the Press Club of India here, the speakers highlighted the plight of imprisoned persons under the provisions of UAPA for virtually no crime committed. The meeting was held to remind the people that even as India was undergoing perhaps the most important parliamentary election in its history, protecting the cause of or establishing democracy would depend on their ability to enjoy the rights granted to them under the constitution.

Following a succinct introduction by Dr. Vikas Bajpai, the convener of Jan Hastakshep, a distinguished panel consisting of Ms. Nandini Sundar, a renowned democratic rights activist and professor at Delhi School of Economics, and Colin Gonzalves, Sanjay Parikh, and Ms. Shahrukh Alam, all senior advocates at the Supreme Court, addressed the gathering. The meeting was chaired and conducted by Dr. Anoop Saraya.

Advocate Gonzalves drew attention to the details of developing conflicts within the judiciary concerning its duty to protect citizens’ democratic rights by citing several rulings from the Supreme Court and different high courts. He voiced worry that the process, particularly that of criminal jurisprudence, is being undermined by the increased closeness between the government and the higher judiciary. “The lowest echelons of the judiciary will undoubtedly be negatively impacted by this as well,” he said.

He cited the case of Lekshmana Chandra Victoria Gowri, a BJP-affiliated attorney who publicly discussed the terror of the Green (Muslim) and White (Christian) parties, as an example. Despite this, the Supreme Court Collegium recommended Gowri for promotion to the Supreme Court. When its decision was challenged, the collegium responded that it could only examine the eligibility and not the suitability of the concerned person.

Advocate Parikh delved into details of how, over the past few decades, the courts have gradually flipped criminal jurisprudence on its head. Previously, the courts held that an individual could not be labelled a terrorist unless his/her involvement in a clear act of terror could be shown, regardless of the beliefs or intentions (even in discussing use of violence).

It is now possible to be charged under terror legislation without even having committed a terror act. This has been impacted by the UAPA’s legal sanctity of the “conspiracy” angle, which allows for someone to be charged with a crime for just “conspiring.” He also emphasised the need for a peoples’ movement for the abrogation of draconian laws, rather than depending solely on the self-realisation or wisdom of individual judges.

Advocate Shahrukh Alam gave an example of the ongoing student protests in the US against the government’s support for the war in Gaza, saying that while the police apparatus in the US appears to be acting very militarily toward its citizens, all of the protestors who were arrested were released after a day or two. On the other hand, not only does the Indian police persist in acting in a colonial manner toward the populace, but the nation’s legal system is militarised and shows little regard for the peoples’ constitutional rights.

Drawing comparisons with several other countries, she said that in India, law enforcement and the police have the unrestricted authority to detain individuals for months at a time while they are still looking into the alleged crime. In other countries, they first gather evidence against the accused before going to court to ask for their custody, she said. Furthermore, a mindset has developed where courts seem more interested in questioning a person’s politics than in looking into the alleged crime they have committed, which taints their decisions.

Prof. Nandini Sundar used her background as a political activist to highlight the realities faced by Chhattisgarh’s tribal population. She criticised the current government’s actions, claiming that the majority of the time, the purpose of laws like the UAPA is not to curb terrorism but rather to incite it among the populace. According to her, the state has consistently worked to disqualify large groups of people from becoming citizens of the country, including Muslims and Dalit communities, as well as tribal people. This is because the state sees any attempt by these groups to exercise their democratic rights as a roadblock to the realisation of the goals of the government.

Therefore, just because a tribal person resides in a region rich in natural resources that the government wants to give to its political backers, that person may be labelled a terrorist and executed. She brought up the case of Umar Khalid, citing the court’s findings that his remarks had sparked Muslim mobilisation, which the court saw as a threat. Therefore, all those who try to provide the populace with the concepts and language necessary to articulate their battles are considered terrorists. According to Ms. Sundar, interrogation goes beyond simply asking questions about people’s political beliefs; it also involves asking about their basic existence, which is why the rulers use UAPA.

A one-line resolution demanding that “the draconian law of UAPA has no place in a democratic society and should be abolished forthwith, and all persons imprisoned under the Act should be released by the courts at the earliest” was passed after the speakers’ presentations and the Q&A session. 

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