Civil liberties under threat

Kashmir Times. Dated: 7/16/2019 5:15:55 PM

Fresh amendments in UAPA will not only threaten civil liberties of citizens but also be dangerous for democratic setup

Civil liberties may be the first casualty with the hasty passing of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act (UAPA) amendment bill in the Lok Sabha last week. As per the UAPA Bill, 2019, brought in by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, last week, the government will be fully empowered to declare even individuals not associated with any banned outfit as terrorists. Without taking into account the sweeping arbitrary provisions of the bill and its immense scope of being misused, the bill was passed in the lower house of the Parliament, despite stiff criticism from the opposition. The brute majority that BJP enjoys in the Parliament allowed it to roughshod over the concerns raised by the opposition including Congress leader Shashi Tharoor's reminder to the government about the original purpose of the law being to use it against collectives and not individuals. The government already has ample powers to arrest individuals on charges of terrorism. The fresh amendments to an already potently draconian law invoke apprehensions that the law would become a tool in the hands of the government of the day to victimize citizens, curtail their civil liberties and use it for pure vendetta or for marginalizing the already marginalised communities including Muslims and Dalits. This is not the first time that any government has sought to further make the provisions of the original UAPA more stringent from time to time. The bill had interestingly raised concerns of misuse by the then opposition including by Atal Behari Vajpayee when it was first introduced and passed in 1967. An amendment was made to the bill after POTA was withdrawn by the Parliament to ensure that all the provisions of POTA were re-incorporated. In 2008, it was further injected with more draconian provisions, arming the government with unbridled powers to act against the civil liberties of the citizens. Yet another amendment was done in 2012 on the pretext of meeting the commitments made at the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental organisation to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. The birth of the law and slew of previous amendments have all come about under successive Congress regimes. Today, if the party which is reduced to a miniscule minority in the Parliament fears that BJP with its majoritarian powers could easily misuse the law to settle scores against dissenters and certain sections of society, it may also need to thanks itself for the stringent provisions of the law. The latest amendments have added yet another layer of stringency to a law whose foundation was laid and subsequently several other layers added to it by the Congress. That the law has been abjectly misused specially since 2008 to nail civil rights activists, human rights defenders, political opponents, dissenters, minorities and Dalits is already well documented. Some of the prominent targets of the act have been Binayak Sen, Kobad Ghandi and more recently activists and intellectuals Sudha Bhardwaj, Prof Shoma Sen, Varavara Rao and Rona Wilson. Many unnamed innocents have been implicated in false cases under this law and have had to spend years behind bars because of the provisions of UAPA charged on them but were acquitted later. Thousands are still languishing in jails as undertrials without bail. Amending the law again by adding more draconian provisions, that put the entire onus upon the individuals to prove their innocence, will only make it an even more dangerous for a democratic country. The law can be easily used to crush the fundamental rights, of certain individuals, as guaranteed by the Indian constitution by shifting the burden of proving their innocence on them.
Both the previous provisions of the law and the present one are ambiguous enough and open the scope of mis-interpretation to suit petty political interests and whims of persons pressing the charges. The ambiguity regarding the criteria and procedure of the process is worrying. Added to this, fresh amendments to another law pertaining to the National Investigating Agency (NIA) seek to further strengthen NIA, vesting powers to probe terror attacks targeting Indians and Indian interests on foreign soil. Used in juxtaposition, these laws are likely to impact political opponents, civil rights activists and minorities. These laws could have an exceptional impact on Kashmir in the backdrop of BJP having systematically built up a public perception in the Indian mainstream that blurs the lines between terrorism and an ordinary Kashmiri. Such strong-armed laws have been detrimental to the interests of Indian democracy in the past and they have not been able to guarantee peace and security but have proved to be counter-productive. The future looks even more bleak.



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