The UN has raised concerns about India’s use of counter-terrorism legislation to crack down on rights activists. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last week warned about India’s “crackdown on civil society actors” and use of “sweeping counter-terrorism measures” under its counter-terrorism legislation — the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
The warning follows the arrest of Khurram Parvez, a prominent human rights activist in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Parvez’s arrest was part of a new crackdown by India’s National Investigation Agency on rights groups in the disputed region.
Indian foreign office spokesperson Arindam Bagchi dismissed the UN’s charge as “baseless and unfounded,” and said Parvez’s “arrest and subsequent detention” was conducted according to the law. The UAPA allows Indian authorities to detain people without producing any incriminating evidence and sets strict requirements for granting bail. Former Patna High Court Judge Anjana Prakash says the legislation has “degenerated into a lethal weapon to quell dissent, and has been used by successive governments to legitimize sinister motives under the cliched procedure established by law.” “While the anti-terror and national security laws are to be used toward the sovereignty and protection of the state, in India they are being employed for the sovereignty and protection of a political party,” Prakash told DW.
Who is behind the UAPA?
First introduced in 2008, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government amended the UAPA in 2019, allowing authorities to categorize not only organizations but also individuals as terrorists.
Calls for repeal of the UAPA have grown over the years, with activists slamming the law as a tactic to target government adversaries. State figures indicate that in seven years, 10,552 Indians have been arrested under the UAPA, resulting in only 253 convictions.
In 2019, 1,948 people were arrested under the law, compared to 1,128 in 2015. Earlier this month, the government told parliament that for the year 2020, the state of Uttar Pradesh recorded 361 UAPA arrests, while Jammu and Kashmir reported 346, and Manipur 225.
Scores of Muslims arrested
Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, said hundreds of Indian Muslims have been booked in bogus terror-related cases, most of these resulting in an acquittal. “The devious strategy of using UAPA is to deflect international criticism from the general disgust and contempt that preventive detention attracts, but subjects the accused to trials lasting as long as 10 years or more,” Nair told DW.
“Victims had either spent years in jail or facing court trials, at times for decades. The police officials, on the other hand, have been let off free,” he said, adding that scores of people charged under the UAPA were later acquitted. Early this year, India released the 127 Muslim citizens who were arrested under the UAPA in 2001. They had been charged with being members of the banned Students Islamic Movement, and for organizing a meeting to “promote and expand” the group’s activities. Five of them died during the long incarceration.
Assam leader Akhil Gogoi, meanwhile, was arrested in December 2019, over mass protests against India’s controversial citizenship law. He was freed after spending more than 18 months in jail.
Similarly, Mohammed Irfan, a small-scale businessman from Nanded in western Maharashtra state, spent nine years in prison under the UAPA for allegedly plotting to kill Indian politicians. He was released in June this year after an Indian court acknowledged that he was wrongly jailed. Punjab-based lawyer Jaspal Singh Manjhpur was booked in 2009 and spent almost 1 and 1/2 years in jail before being granted bail. He was acquitted in 2014.
Manjhpur now represents more than 70 persons charged under UAPA in different courts across the northern state. “In most of the cases, the police tell the court that the accused was planning to carry out some criminal activity, and then uses UAPA to ensure that the person does not come out of jail on bail. The majority of cases under the UAPA have no criminal occurrence,” Manjhpur told DW.
UAPA has ‘failed us’
In recent months, there have been few instances of the courts granting bail to those accused under the anti-terror law. In June, the Delhi High Court ordered bail granted to three student activists: Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, and Asif Iqbal Tanha. The case was perhaps one of the first instances of a court calling out alleged misuse of the UAPA against individuals.
In July, in a rare show of unanimity, four former Supreme Court judges promoted repealing of the UAPA, saying the legislation was usually misused to stifle dissent. “I submit, UAPA has failed us on both counts — national security and constitutional freedoms,” said Judge Aftab Alam, referring to the death of 84-year-old jailed Jesuit priest Stan Swamy. Swamy, who was also a longtime Indian tribal rights activist, had been charged under the UAPA.
Rights group Amnesty International said Swamy’s death in custody was “a chilling and tragic example of how the UAPA facilitates the government’s human rights abuses,’’ and reflected evidence of its “disproportionate and abusive use.’’