The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 (UAPA) is a law used increasingly to criminalise dissent and terrorise organised social movements, that threaten the ruling elite in India.
The recent arrests and detentions under the dreaded UAPA serve as a useful entry point to understand its nature and function.
Use of UAPA Shows ‘Scant Respect for Human Rights, Rule of Law & Justice’
The UAPA outlines that it is meant for ‘more effective prevention’ of ‘unlawful activities.’
The Act defines 'unlawful activity' as an 'intention to disrupt the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India'. It gives the central government the authority to declare any association of individuals or bodies to be an unlawful association by notification. The Act also includes a provision for the proclamation of the notification 'by the beat of drum or means of loudspeakers', as seen in the Bollywood classic, Gangs of Wasseypur!
The UAPA has become the chief weapon for the State; students, human rights and minority activists were slapped with charges of 'unlawful’ activities.
On the processual fraud in its legal-administrative system, former Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur recently wrote that “the process has shown scant respect for human rights, rule of law and justice”.
The pattern repeats itself with chilling monotony in protests where farmers resisted pro-corporate agricultural bills, Dalits, resisted upper-caste supremacy, journalists stood for raped Dalit girls by upper-caste men, feminist and farmers’ activists stood for minority rights and not to mention, the Kashmiri and Adivasi (‘tribal’) resistance against the military-corporate state aggression.
How the Meerut Conspiracy Trial 1929-33 Foreshadowed UAPA
The logic and the working of the UAPA can be understood by comparing it to the Meerut Conspiracy Trial (MCT), 1929-33 and all its glaring similarities.
This was a conspiracy case launched by the British colonial state in India against trade union leaders in 1929.
The year 1928 saw an unprecedented rise in industrial strikes in Bombay and Calcutta. The general strikes in Bombay textiles ran for several months and in Calcutta, there were month-long strikes in railway and jute mills.
This turned Bombay and Calcutta into what the city elites disapprovingly called insurrectionary centres. The industrial actions from below elicited different responses from the colonial state. Police actions increased - through open confrontations including killings and insidious surveillance including interception of private correspondences and invigilation of public speeches.
New laws were enacted to make strikes illegal and deport labour leaders, particularly the communists. However, rulers could hardly rule through direct domination. As Antonio Gramsci wrote, they needed ‘predominance by consent’.
Half a Decade in Prison For 32 Trade Union Leaders
As worker-subjects rejected the hegemony of capital and empire by stopping work, clashing with the police, sloganeering 'lal bauta ki jai' (long live the red flag), and rallying to shouts of 'mill inke baap ka nahi hain' (the mill does not belong to the father of the capitalists), the state rushed to combat the anarchy.
On 20 March 1929, the MCT was formally launched with the arrest of 32 trade union leaders. With a chargesheet of a Moscow-directed conspiracy to deprive the British King of his sovereignty in India, the prosecution trudged to unleash a cold war, to bring the worker-subjects back to their side by preaching evolution instead of revolution, non-violence instead of violence and constitutionalism instead of collective action. In this, 32 union leaders were made to languish in the prison cells of the garrison town of Meerut for nearly half a decade.
In the most obvious sense, the MCT was a legal weapon to send chilling waves down the spines of potential dissidents, particularly the labour leaders. In its larger sense, it was a propaganda war by the state to manufacture spontaneous consent of people around the so-called gospel of what was ‘unlawful’.
The MCT syndrome with its dual aspect of order and consent, forms the body and soul of today’s UAPA in India.
Massive Spike in Arrests Under UAPA
According to data provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in the Lok Sabha, with 7009 arrests between 2015 and 2019, there has been a 72% increase in the number of arrests under UAPA.
In Uttar Pradesh, the number of arrests made under the UAPA in 2016 was 15. After the new BJP government came to power, it shot up to 498 arrests in 2019, with an incredible 3320% increase.
An earlier reply by the government in the Lok Sabha revealed that only 2.2% of cases registered under the UAPA between 2016-2019 had ended in convictions.
Bail under UAPA is an exception. After a detailed analysis of the proceedings against Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Asif Iqbal Tanha, Justice Madan Lokur in his recent article wrote that “the scales of processual justice are heavily loaded in favour of the state and the victims are ordinary people like you and me – not the privileged few". Such is the spectre of the UAPA, that people might not object to a former judge of the Supreme Court calling himself an ordinary man!
Govt Amended UAPA for Authority to Designate Individuals as Terrorists
‘Terror’ is the most convenient trope on which the state manufactures spontaneous consent for unlawful activity. No wonder, a major part of the UAPA is dedicated to ‘terrorist’ activity.
In chapter IV of the UAPA, we find a Machiavellian terror clause on the prevention of ‘intent to strike terror or likely to strike terror in the people’. In a most disingenuous manner, the domain of ‘unlawful activity’ was expanded from its apparent role in protecting state sovereignty, to protecting the wider population.
The 1967 UAPA gave the central government the authority to designate an organisation as a terrorist organisation. Union Home Minister Amit Shah asserted that much tougher laws were needed to end terrorism.
Hence, the Indian government amended the 1967 UAPA in 2019 to allow itself the additional authority to designate individuals (not only organisations) as terrorists. The history that followed is dotted with indiscriminate arrests under UAPA.
This brings us to reflect on, arguably, the most important issue of the UAPA. Who has fed this monster? The short answer is ‘we the people of India’.
From the perspectives of victims of the UAPA, any activity that challenges hierarchy-based order through popular resistance generally constitutes ‘unlawful activity’.
A long-term struggle to dismantle the UAPA, then, is contingent on generating social movements aimed at rejecting the consent to domination, as well as to dominate.
A System Designed to Aid the Privileged Few
Justice Lokur ended his column on an inspiring note - to struggle against the system of the ‘privileged few’ - by invoking the famous lines of Robert Frost, “We have miles to go before we sleep”.
I suspect we might need to wake up first from our deep state of hibernation before we join the long walk towards freedom. Lester Hutchinson, one of the accused in the MCT wrote in 1935 that the “Meerut conspiracy case had all the makings of a good drama…It was as though an attempt had been made to dramatise the Sahara”.
The UAPA, with its MCT syndrome, is likewise a drama. Until it is over, it however, remains a scary one! Any right-thinking individual has a public responsibility to agitate for the freedom of every individual detained under the UAPA, and above all to agitate for the annihilation of this terroristic law.
(Jyotishman Mudiar is a researcher at the Center For Historical Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)