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Difference of opinion v/s Terrorism

Posted in Featured, View Point

Published on June 28, 2021 with No Comments

Is difference of opinion a dissent?  Going by the treatment that has been given to three students activists in India for over a year now, it seems that the Delhi Police that comes directly under the Central Home Ministry has its own parameters to treat dissension with an iron rod.  Last week, Delhi High Court found that offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) are not made out prima facie against student leaders Asif Iqbal Tanha, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita in the Delhi riots conspiracy case. The Delhi Police had filed charge sheet against them alleging that the protests organized by them against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) from December 2019 were part of a “larger conspiracy”. The verdict has come as a strong blow to the Narendra Modi Government that is facing allegation of rampant use of the UAPA .  Arrests under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) have been on the rise in the country but the chargesheeting has been poor. UAPA is the same law whose ‘unfair’ use by the present dispensation has put it under criticism by many human rights organisations. In the Lok Sabha, the Ministry of Home Affairs has informed that a total of 922 UAPA cases were registered across India in 2016, 901 in 2017 and 1,182 in 2018. An accused charged under the provisions of UAPA cannot seek anticipatory bail and the period of investigation can be extended from 90 days up to 180 days at the request of the Government Counsel, which means that the accused will have no access to default bail.

Consider these three students have spent over a period of one year in Tihar jail, that too amid two deadly waves of COVID pandemic. They could not even exercise the benefit of interim bail as they were accused under the UAPA. After Natasha Narwal lost her father, she was granted three weeks interim bail to attend the last rites.

Delhi Police assessed the order and put up an appeal just within 24 hours in Supreme Court of granting the bail.  After the Supreme Court stated on June 18 that the manner in which the HC had interpreted the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act “will probably require examination” by the top court and the High Court order will not be treated as a precedent and shall not be relied upon by anyone before any court. The order by High Court had given a feeling of acquittal and being free to the three accused, however the order by Supreme Court of India makes them realize that they continue to be suspects in the eye of the law.  In addition, the order by the High Court was a welcome step as to prevent civil liberties from being ill-treated by authorities in power.  Delhi Police from the very beginning has been working to hinder the release. The release of the three activists has bruised the ego of the Delhi Police and has come as a damper in its moves to hold these activists behind the bars.  Delhi Police argued before the Apex Court that the order by the High Court has weakened the impact of the UAPA.   Whereas , the High Court had pointed out that the definition of “terrorism” in section 15 of the UAPA is vague and has been used as a license to classify all kinds of infractions as terrorist. Since, it is now armed with the observation of the apex court, it could implicate them fresh.

This order will put more spotlights on how individuals are charged under the provisions of the UAPA. The court noted that ‘it seems that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the state, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred’. ‘If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy,’ it added.

Plurality of opinion and the freedom to express it, is known to strengthen the democracy and not weaken it. Democracy is weakened when state authorities  are used to arrest people with an attempt to fizzle out their voices. As the High Court noted, ‘The foundations of our nation stand on surer footing than to be likely to be shaken by a protest, however vicious, organized by a tribe of college students or other persons’. Letting people protest peacefully  is an important element of a democracy  and invoking the most severe penal provisions against them belittles democracy and trivializes terrorism.

 

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