Understanding UAPA, the Controversial Law Used to Arrest Activists for “Maoist Links”


Understanding UAPA, the Controversial Law Used to Arrest Activists for “Maoist Links”

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Back in 2007, when the Congress-led government was in power, Mumbai-based lawyer and activist Arun Ferreira was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. At the time, he was accused of leading the communications wing of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist, branded an “Urban Naxal”, and was slapped with 10 cases relating to acts of terrorism. Ferreira went on to spend almost five years in the Nagpur Central Jail and was tortured in prison before being acquitted. As it turned out, the state failed to prove any of the charges against him.

And yet yesterday, in an unbelievable case of déjà vu, Ferreira was arrested once again  — now under the watchful eyes of the BJP government — and had his home raided under the same act. Over ten years after his wrongful arrest, Ferreira was once again branded an urban naxal, despite a court already proclaiming his innocence.

Besides Ferreira, five other activists, including lawyer and activist Sudha Bhardwaj, poet and Maoist ideologue Varavara Rao, and activists, Gautam Navlakha and Vernon Gonsalves were arrested by the Pune police after multi-city searches. All of them have been booked under the controversial Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or UAPA. According to the police, they were linked to Maoists accused of playing a role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence between Dalits and upper-caste Marathas that took place on December 31. Police claim that the arrests were based on “fresh evidence” that the accused were planning a “big conspiracy”. But even as the arrests have been challenged in the Supreme Court, it remains unclear what is the “fresh evidence” gathered by the police or what the “big conspiracy” is.    

The arrests of these activists have led to widespread condemnation of the oppressive anti-terror law that authorises raids and arrests without a warrant if a person is suspected of “supporting terrorist acts or unlawful activities”. Introduced in 1967 to “safeguard India’s integrity and sovereignty”, UAPA also gives any official the power to seize any material during such raids.

Naturally, the act heavily favours the state — police get 180 days to file a chargesheet instead of 90 and the accused doesn’t have the right to apply for bail. Section 43D(5) of the Act prevents the courts from granting bail to a person if “on a perusal of the case diary or the [police] report … [the court] is of the opinion that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusation against such person is prima facie true.” Lawyer Gautam Bhatia writers in The Hindu, “The case diary and the charge sheet is the version of the state. Therefore, under the UAPA, as long as the state’s version appears to make out an offence, a court cannot, under law, grant bail.” Those booked under UAPA, then have to wait for the lengthy judicial process to run its course, which in most cases takes years.

The most harmful part of the law is that it gives the authorities room to label “unlawful associations, terrorist gangs or terrorist organisations” at their discretion.

But the most harmful part of the law is that it gives the authorities room to label unlawful associations, terrorist gangs or terrorist organisations” at their discretion, and detain members of these organisations. In Bhardwaj’s case, who is under house arrest until August 30, the cops seized her mobile, laptop, and pen-drive, besides taking her Twitter and email passwords.

In the past, the Indian government has charged human rights activist Binayak Sen and Kobad Ghandy with UAPA. Even Vernon Gonsalves was arrested under UAPA back in 2007 and had to spend six years in prison. And in 2013, Sachin Mali and his pregnant wife Sheetal Sathe, who were members of Pune-based group Kabir Kala Manch, were charged and arrested under UAPA. Recently, it was employed to arrest five activists in June whereas Tamil Nadu political activist Thirumurugan Gandhi was also charged with UAPA two weeks ago.

But over the years, the scope of the law has moved far beyond just being a vehicle to arrest people for inciting violence. If yesterday’s arrests are any proof, it’s clear that the UAPA is just an excuse for the state to arrest people for their ideology. It’s no longer about protecting the country’s integrity but safeguarding the government. In the same article, Bhatia argues about the broad definition of UAPA adds, “The definition of “unlawful activities” includes “disclaiming” or “questioning” the territorial integrity of India, and causing “disaffection” against India. These words are staggeringly vague and broad, and come close to establishing a regime of thought-crimes” allowing  “governments great and virtually unbridled power to arrest people under boundlessly manipulable justifications, such as “having suspected Maoist links”.

Back in 2014, after Ferreira was acquitted of the last of the ten cases, he chalked down these arrests under UAPA as an “attempt by the authorities to artificially inflate their statistics of Naxalites that they have acted against”. With the 2019 elections approaching, his belief is still as relevant.