By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*
Aisha Sultana, a native of Lakshadweep’s Chetlat island, is today one of India’s visible faces in the cry for justice! She is a well-known actor and director and an activist. Lakshadweep, a Union Territory, is an archipelago of 36 islands in the Arabian Sea: a paradise with pristine beauty.
Its 70,000-strong population is predominantly Muslim (with smaller percentages of Hindus and Christians); although the people of Lakshadweep have strong ties with Kerala (the nearest place to the Indian mainland), they have a distinct social and cultural identity.
Recently, the current administrator (a hard-line politician of the ruling party) introduced a slew of draft legislation, which has sparked widespread protests not only in Lakshadweep but all over the country. The proposed policies are clearly anti-people and unjust, bound to have a wide-ranging impact on the islands: on the lives and livelihoods of Lakshadweep’s residents.
A land development plan gives the administrator vast powers to take over land and relocate people, and provides for stringent penalties for those who resist. The plan allows for mining and exploitation of mineral resources in the islands. Under the new rules, the slaughter of cows and transport of beef products has been made an offense.
The Prevention of Anti-Social Activities (PASA) Regulation provides for detention of a person without any public disclosure for a period of up to a year. The legislations are clearly designed to help the crony capitalist friends of the ruling regime!
During a debate on a Malayalam news channel recently, Sultana blamed the administrator for the surge in coronavirus cases in the Union Territory. She said the Centre was using him as a “bio-weapon” against the people of Lakshadweep. A case of sedition was filed against her with the complainant accusing her of “anti-national comments” and “tarnishing the patriotic image of the central government”.
Aisha has plenty of support coming her way with many saying that the filmmaker was only speaking for the rights of the people on the islands and about the administrator’s “unscientific, irresponsible draconian decisions”. On 17 June, the Kerala High Court granted her interim bail if she is arrested but also directed her to appear before the police in Lakshadweep for interrogation.
Then we have the case of the three anti-CAA student activists: Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, from the JNU (members of women’s rights group Pinjra Tod), and Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha; all three of them were languishing in jail for more than a year, incarcerated under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
On June 15, the Delhi High Court granted bail to the three of them. The Court order was a singular blow for freedom of speech and expression and the right to dissent. Among other things the order said, “In its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred… If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.”
The court also said there was a “complete lack of any specific, factual allegations…. other than those spun by mere grandiloquence” and “(such serious sections) must be applied in a just and fair way, lest it unjustly ropes within its ambit persons whom the Legislature never intended to punish.”
The court said that in establishing a prima facie case under the UAPA provisions, there have to be “specific or particularised” allegations. It notes that the prosecution has only made inferences about three activists, using “hyperbolic verbiage.” It underlined:
“Allegations relating to inflammatory speeches, organising of chakka jaam, instigating women to protest and to stock-pile various articles and other similar allegations, in our view, at worst, are evidence that the appellant participated in organising protests, but we can discern no specific or particularised allegation, much less any material to bear-out the allegation, that the appellant incited violence, what to talk of committing a terrorist act or a conspiracy or act preparatory to the commission of a terrorist act as understood in the UAPA.”
At the core of the High Court judgement are two principles fleshed out in assertive language. Primarily, unless the ingredients of the UAPA are clearly made out in the conduct of the accused, protest and dissent cannot be outlawed by labelling them as a terrorist act.
Secondly, UAPA can be applied only in exceptional circumstances. The draconian law cannot be invoked for crimes that do not fall under these exceptions, however egregious they might be; by establishing these principles and making several other crucial points, the Court has managed to put important fetters on the abuse of the UAPA provisions.
The Delhi Police (directly controlled by the Central government) however, are unhappy with this judgement. They delayed releasing the three activists on bail, for more than two days and of course, they challenged the validity of the judgement in the Supreme Court. On June 18, in their prayer, the Delhi Police wanted the Apex Court to stay the High Court order because they felt that it virtually records the acquittal of the accused and others would seek bail using this as precedent.
The Supreme Court, however, upheld the Delhi High Court’s order granting the three activists bail. It also added that the Court’s verdict of bail for the three — charged with conspiracy under strict anti-terror law UAPA – could not be used as precedent for future cases. What was indeed ‘surprising’ was the comment of the Supreme Court saying that the verdict of the Delhi High Court was ‘surprising!’
It agreed, however, to examine the legal aspects of the High Court verdict, and said the case would be taken up next month. Some of the recent blatantly biased pronouncements by the Apex Court make most concerned citizens wince!!
The UAPA is draconian and anti-Constitutional. It has been used selectively to crush voices of dissent and throttle those who take up cudgels on behalf of those crying out for justice: the Dalits and the Adivasis, the migrant workers and the slum-dwellers, the excluded and the exploited.
We see it the case of Fr Stan Swamy and the 15 others incarcerated in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. There are hundreds in jail today, like Umar Khalid and Siddique Kappan, under the UAPA, not because they are terrorists but because they dared to take on a corrupt and fascist regime. There is absolutely no doubt about that. Journalists and academics, as we saw in the case of Sulabh Shrivastava in UP, are killed because they demonstrated the courage to confront the mafia.
Every section is saying enough is enough to blatant lack of political will to adhere to tenets of Constitution, to democratic values
Ordinary people — casual workers, daily wage earners, migrant workers, the unemployed — bear the brunt of an inhuman and unjust system which caters to the whims and fancies, the profiteering of a few privileged elite! An important report ‘No Country for Workers’ released on 16 June highlights this painful reality. The report by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) focuses on the ‘Covid-19 Second Wave, Local Lockdowns and Migrant Worker distress in India’.
It is more than seven months now and the farmers are unrelenting. They are clear, that despite all the difficulties and the suffering that they have to go through the three anti-farmer laws must be repealed totally and unconditionally by the Government!
*Human rights and peace activist/writer