On 28 August 2018, police across the country raided the homes of prominent human rights advocates and activists, saying these people were responsible for instigating the violence in Bhima-Koregaon in January 2018.
At least five of them – advocate Sudha Bharadwaj, lawyer and author Arun Ferreira, revolutionary poet Varavara Rao, as well as activists Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves – were taken into custody.
According to the search panchnamas prepared by the Pune Police (who orchestrated the police action), these activists are all being investigated for offences under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA), a draconian anti-terror legislation that was used to arrest five prominent Dalit rights activists in June this year for their alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence, and links to Naxal groups.
But what exactly is the UAPA? Why are human rights activists being charged under it? And what is the significance of using this law against them?
The UAPA was introduced in 1967 as a legislation to set out reasonable restrictions on the fundamental freedoms under Article 19(1) of the the Constitution, such as freedom of speech, right to assemble peacefully and right to form associations. These restrictions were meant to be used to safeguard India’s integrity and sovereignty.
Over the years, terror-specific legislations like Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) were repealed after running into legal trouble, and the UAPA became the primary anti-terror legislation in India. Since 2004, there have been a number of amendments to the UAPA to make it stricter when it comes to the rights of accused, and include more terror-related offences.
In line with its stated objectives, the UAPA punishes the commission, funding and support of “unlawful activities” and “terrorist acts”.
“Unlawful activities” is a term referring to any action that supports or is intended to support secession of any part of India, or “disclaims, questions, disrupts or is intended to disrupt” the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India.
“Terrorist acts”, defined in Section 15 of the UAPA, refer to any violent acts meant to threaten the security of India, or to strike terror in people in India or abroad.
However, its most controversial aspect has come to be the declaration of certain organisations as “unlawful associations”, “terrorist gangs” or “terrorist organisations”. Once any organisation has been declared by the government to fall within one of these categories, even being a member of it becomes a criminal offence.