India’s government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imprisoned thousands of people through a law that critics say aims to quell dissent.
New Delhi: Two women were raising their fists and raising slogans of protest from the gate of India’s infamous Tihar Jail.
His release on bail in June after spending a year in custody was unusual given the charges against him: he has been charged with terrorism.
Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, student activists, were imprisoned in the British colonial era under an anti-terrorism law that critics say is increasingly being used by the Indian government to quell dissent.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, those who were charged under an anti-terrorism law known as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act usually spent years in prison before their trial began. Thousands have been imprisoned, including poets, political organizers and even a Catholic priest. The law is being challenged by the courts, which say it is an abuse of power.
“The law makes you guilty until you are able to prove yourself innocent,” said Ms Narwal, founder of Pinjra Tod, or Break the Cage, a women’s student group.
“Coming out of prison in a year,” she said, “is a miracle.”
Criminal justice experts have said that Mr Modi’s government has developed a playbook for police dissent and freedom of expression. Since taking office in 2014, Mr Modi has relied more heavily on laws that give authorities more powers to detain people and take action against those accused of inciting hatred against the government.
In 2019 the Modi government itself gave more access to people’s online data. Last year, it proposed a law that would make encrypted messages “traceable”, leading to prosecution from messaging service WhatsApp, saying it violates Indians’ constitutional right to privacy.
Authorities have succeeded in persuading social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter to shut down millions of accounts in India for a wide range of alleged crimes against citizens and the government. Officials regularly shut down internet services during protests, causing India to Tops the list of global criminals Tracked by Watchdog Group Access Now.
The anti-terrorism law, which empowers judges to extend pre-trial detention almost indefinitely, has been one of Mr. Modi’s most repressive tools.
During the tenure of the Prime Minister, there has been an increase in the number of cases registered under the Anti-Terrorism Act. According to official figures, more than 8,300 people have been arrested and jailed in the past five years. There are no reliable official figures about the use of the law before 2014, but legal experts say the number of cases was negligible.
The government told parliament in August that from 2016 to 2019, only 2 percent of cases registered under the law resulted in conviction. But even without punishment, people detained under the law can be jailed for years before their cases are tried.
The Delhi High Court, in a hearing, said, “It appears that in its concern to stifle dissent and the morbid apprehension of matters going out of hand, the state has blurred the line between the constitutional right to protest and terrorist activity.” Have given.” Ms Narwal and two fellow activists were released on bail as a result of June.
“If such blurring gains traction,” the court continued, “democracy would be in danger.”
A government spokesperson Kanchan Gupta defended the law, saying it helps the government to “ensure the safety of its citizens and protect them from the nation’s adversaries”.
Among those detained under the Anti-Terrorism Act, the case of Rev. Stan Swamy has generated special outrage. Father Swami, a Jesuit priest and activist for Parkinson’s disease, died in custody in July at the age of 84. He was accused of making provocative speeches and supporting a Maoist insurgent insurgency operating in India for decades. He was the oldest person in India accused of terrorism.
Father Swami died after his repeated bail requests were denied on medical grounds. An independent investigation conducted by a digital forensics firm suggested that his computer, which was confiscated by Indian investigators, hacked and attached the files. But neither his ill health nor the findings of that report were enough to get him bail.
After the death of father Swami, Justice Deepak Gupta, a former Supreme Court judge, said the anti-terror law was being misused, and courts should formulate clear guidelines.
“Are we human?” He asked. “UAPA should not remain as it is.”
Various iterations of the law have been controversial for more than a century. A precursor to this was introduced in 1908 by the authorities under the British Raj to suppress independence movements. In 1967, when India was free from wars with Pakistan and China, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi introduced the UAPA to punish groups for “sowing disputes”. This prompted an uproar among lawmakers, and a watered-down version was passed.
For decades, the law has been amended to address terrorist activity. Investigators relied on it to arrest suspects in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.
In 2019, Mr. Modi’s government further amended the law to give officers more power to make arrests on terrorism charges.
Dushyant Dave, an Indian lawyer, said, “It attacks individual liberty and gives government powers to designate everyone as a terrorist.” “There is evidence that those arrested under the law have been targeted for their political beliefs.”
The release of students on bail in June prompted a growing scrutiny of the government’s use of the law.
Ms Narwal and 18 others face charges for their role in protests against a divisive citizenship law pushed by the Modi government, which bans Muslims from a program that offered South Asian migrants a fast track to citizenship in India. does out. Last year a protest against the law in a working class neighborhood of New Delhi turned into clashes between Hindus and Muslims. More than two dozen people died.
Police arrested more than 1,800 people who they say played a role in the riots. No one has been convicted yet. During court hearings, judges have criticized the quality of police witnesses’ testimony and evidence.
“It is even more painful to note that the quality of investigation in a large number of riot cases is very poor,” Justice Vinod Yadav, a judge of the Delhi High Court, said in August.
A judge in order to grant bail to Ms. Narwal in the month of June questioned the legality In the case of police force.
India’s closed court system means that the wheels of justice spin slowly. Anti-terrorism legislation slows things down further.
In May 2020, Ms Narwal and two fellow student activists were taken into custody. Due to pandemic restrictions, each spent the first 10 days in solitary confinement.
A judge immediately ruled that Ms Narwal was exercising her democratic rights when she participated in the protests earlier that year.
But after a while the police New fee announced: Organized protests inciting attempted murder, terrorism and deadly religious violence. Ms Narwal, 32, who has pleaded innocent, was returned to her cell.
Ms Narwal waited in Tihar, a maximum security jail, for six months before her first bail hearing. According to his lawyer, Adit Pujari, prosecutors filed an 18,000-page chargesheet, which took the high court six months and 30 hearings to process.
“In a sense, the government won,” said Mr. Pujari. “Had she been out, she could have been involved in more protests and led to more issues.”
For now, Ms. Narwal has returned to Delhi to pursue her doctorate, but the case against her could go on for years. The Supreme Court is considering the petition for cancellation of his bail.
“We ourselves are ready for the long haul because the law itself is so strict,” said Ms. Narwal. “You’re almost powerless until your test is done.”
Sameer Yasiro Reported from Srinagar, Kashmir.