What is the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA)?

India Nov 05, 2020

The Looming Threat of India's Controversial UAPA

On 14th September 2020, human rights activist and an alumnus of JNU, Umar Khalid was arrested by the Delhi Police for his alleged role in the communal riots that ensued in Delhi in February 2020. Khalid was booked under the much contentious law, UAPA or The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Ever since its recent amendment in August 2019, many activists, lawyers, jurists, and political commentators lobbied against it, highlighting its brazenly unconstitutional nature. But what exactly is the UAPA? And why is it so controversial?

What is the UAPA?

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA is an Indian law for the effective prevention of unlawful activities association in India that threaten the ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’. It makes power available for dealing with such activities. The UAPA is also an upgrade of India’s erstwhile terror laws, TADA and POTA, which were repealed in 1995 and 2004 respectively.

It was originally promulgated by the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government, along the lines of the recommendations of the National Integration and Regionalism Committee that sought to curb essential rights like the right to freedom of speech and expression, right to assemble peacefully without arms and right to form associations and unions, in the larger interests of protecting the sovereignty and integrity of India. The government, keen on adopting these recommendations, enacted the Constitutional (Sixteenth Amendment) Act, 1963, and passed the bill with the assent of both the Houses and the President on 30th December 1967.

What does the recent Amendment say?

The UAPA has been amended on multiple occasions to incorporate varying techniques of terrorism. Most recently, it was amended in August 2019. Earlier, only organizations could be tagged as ‘terrorist organizations’ under the UAPA. However, following the 2019 Amendment, individuals can also be designated as ‘terrorists’, without trial. The Government justified this move by stating that, only designating groups as ‘terrorist’ was futile as individual members could continue with their miscreancy by operating under different names. Hence, it was necessary to expand the provision of who could be characterized as a terrorist.

What are the main objections to the Amendment?

Despite its inherent intent of protecting the sovereignty, integrity, and internal security of India, there has not been a dearth of objections against it. Here are some of them:

  1. Besides the categorization of groups as ‘terrorist’, extending the power to include within its scope the labeling of individuals as terrorists is bound to raise concerns.
  2. It is contrary to the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ as the mechanism to justify one’s case is almost inaccessible to people booked under the UAPA. It also violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  3. No objective criterion is laid down for the categorization and the law bestows upon the Centre broad discretionary and “unfettered” powers.
  4. It bypasses Fundamental Rights and procedures, such as Article 14, 19, 21 as well as the right to dissent. This was also highlighted in the petition filed by Sajal Awasthi to declare the UAPA as unconstitutional.

Arbitrary use of UAPA

From the Congress government declaring the RSS - a radical Hindutva outfit - as ‘unlawful’ to the BJP-led Central government orchestrating the arrests of its critics and opponents, the UAPA has been exploited as a tool by the governments to imperil the freedom of speech under the guise of protecting security. The most recent use of UAPA was seen in the mass arrests of anti-CAA protestors on the grounds of inciting violence that led to the Delhi riots. Some of these protestors include Devangangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Umar Khalid, and Safoora Zargar.

This article has been written by Ishaan Singh for The Paradigm

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