July 2, 2018
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act must be cleansed of its vast discretionary powers
On December 1, 1948, Professor K.T. Shah rose to make an impassioned speech in the Constituent Assembly. “The autocrat, the despot,” he warned, “has always wished, whenever he was bankrupt of any other argument, just to shut up those who did not agree with him.” Along with many other members of the CA, he was objecting to the wide range of restrictions that had been imposed upon fundamental rights in the draft Constitution. Drawing attention to the multiple “Public Safety Acts” and “Defence of India Acts” that had been the favourite weapons of the colonial regime, speaker after speaker expressed the concern that, despite the best intentions of the Assembly, the Constitution could easily be interpreted to authorise the continuation of these hated laws.
The arrest of five individuals in early June, ostensibly for instigating the riots at Bhima-Koregaon at the beginning of the year, throws the fears expressed in the CA into sharp relief. The accused, who include activists and lawyers, have been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). An examination of the UAPA shows how, in one overarching “anti-terrorism law”, vast discretionary powers are conferred upon state agencies, judicial oversight is rendered toothless, and personal liberty is set at naught.
The UAPA authorises the government to ban “unlawful organisations” and “terrorist organisations” (subject to judicial review), and penalises membership of such organisations.