In the last five years, Karnataka has witnessed 971 cases of riots, either communal or political in nature, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. This includes the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protest in Mangaluru (December 2019), which saw unprecedented violence – including the death of two persons. The incident was deemed a riot and the police slapped all necessary charges under the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
However, when the DJ Halli riots happened earlier this year Bengaluru, the Central Crime Branch (CCB) invoked the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967 against 163 people.
On 11 August 2020, a mob took to the streets of DJ Halli over a Facebook post by Naveen Kumar, the nephew of Congress MLA Akhanda Srinivas Murthy. The mob attacked the MLA’s house, Naveen’s house, and also two police stations in DJ Halli and KJ Halli areas.
The police filed 68 FIRs and arrested over 350 people. In two of the FIRs, they invoked sections 15 and 16 (punishment for terrorist activity), section 18 (conspiracy to commit a terrorist act) and section 20 (being members of a terrorist organisation) of the UAPA.
This application of the UAPA is in sharp contrast to what was used in the Mangaluru case. It may set a new precedent in Karnataka on the use, or indeed misuse, of the extremely stringent UAPA.
“This is the largest number of people ever charged under the UAPA for a single incident of violence in Karnataka. This is unprecedented. In fact, in the last five years, not a single case involving riots has been booked under UAPA. To remind you, there was a similar incident in Mangaluru, where a police station was attacked by a mob. I’m not saying UAPA should have been slapped in that case, but I’m merely providing a comparison,” said a retired Karnataka cadre IPS officer, requesting anonymity.
UAPA Applied Within Purview of Law: Police
Coincidentally, the Bengaluru Police decided to slap these stringiest charges just days after a fact-finding committee, led by BJP leader Aravind Lambavalli, demanded an investigation by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). “Once UAPA is slapped, NIA has the jurisdiction to the take over the case,” the same officer commented.
Talking to The Quint, a senior police officer in charge of the case, defended their actions. According to the officer, the incidents in DJ Halli, especially the attacks on the police stations, amount to acts of terror. “Our actions are well within the purview of the law. There have been cases in past where attacks on police stations have been considered acts of terror,” he claimed.
Families Hope for Justice
The families in DJ Halli affected by the mass arrests claim they have been wronged. Saira (name changed), whose husband was arrested as part of the case, said she had CCTV footage to prove that he husband was not at the site of the riot. “There is CCTV footage showing him getting into the apartment from the only entry and exit to their building. He doesn’t come out there for the entire duration of the violence,” she claimed.
She questioned the fairness of the situation pointing out that the lawyer representing her husband (and the other 162 persons) will not be able to get them out of jail until the charge sheet is filed by the NIA.
Vinay Srinivasa, an advocate and legal expert, pointed out that UAPA itself is a law designed to keep people in jail rather than address terrorist activities or a law and order issue. “The entire investigation has been arbitrary. There have been several statements about how the Police randomly picked up Muslim youth in the dead of night. There are serious questions about police overreach and how within few hours of the violence they could identify 100s of people, find out their addresses, and arrest them,” he said.
He further added, “Secondly the FIRs are vague, they use phrases like other Muslim men, which indicate an intent to target Muslims. They are marked with arbitrariness. 100s of Muslim youth who have nothing to do with the issue have been picked up without informing them or the family of why, and without following the procedures of arrest.”
In the same breath, the FIRs have named/identified the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and Popular Front of India (PFI) as the organisations involved in the violence. The FIR also invokes section 20 (being members of a terrorist organisation). However, so far these organisations have not been declared terrorist outfits by the Union government.