Indian anti-terror law snags more than terrorists

India has long prided itself on being the world’s largest democracy. But that reputation is looking shaky these days, as the government led by Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi fractures down on opponents of all stripes.

The authorities are making particular use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, known as UAPA, a catchall law, originally designed to curb terrorism, that makes bail almost impossible. It rarely leads to court convictions, so its main effect is to detain people – often for years on end – without trial.

Why We Wrote This

The Indian government is using exceptional laws designed to curb terrorism in order to silence peaceful dissenters. That risks undermining the rule of law and threatens India’s democratic heritage.

UAPA arrests have been rising in recent years, targeting journalists, activists, and lawyers, among others. But the police seem to use the law indiscriminately: They already used its provisions to arrest Muslim students celebrating Pakistan’s recent victory over India in a cricket match.

“There is no doubt the law is being abused,” says retired Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur. “Strengthening the rule of law is one aspect of a liberal democracy; fairly implementing the law is another aspect. I think we are deficient on both counts.” 

New Delhi

Pendyala Pavana is no stranger to the world of social activism and government repression. Ever since she was a child she has seen her father, a revolutionary poet and activist, placed under repeated criminal charges, accused of everything under the sun, including murder.

Twenty-four times he has been charged; 24 times he has been found not guilty. nevertheless, Ms. Pavana is shocked by the way her father, Varavara Rao, is being treated in his latest ordeal. “It’s quite against natural justice, and his rights are completely denied,” she says.

Mr. Rao is one of 16 people, including respected human rights lawyers and university professors, detained in 2018 for allegedly plotting with a banned Maoist group to overthrow the government.

Why We Wrote This

The Indian government is using exceptional laws designed to curb terrorism in order to silence peaceful dissenters. That risks undermining the rule of law and threatens India’s democratic heritage.

They have been charged under India’s principal anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, known as UAPA. This is a draconian, vaguely worded catchall law, dating from 1967 but amended several times since then, that allows detention without charge for 180 days, a duration far exceeding international standards. It also makes securing bail almost impossible, but its use very rarely leads to court convictions.

“There is no doubt the law is being abused,” says retired Supreme Court Justice Madan Lokur. “Strengthening the rule of law is one aspect of a liberal democracy; fairly implementing the law is another aspect. I think we are deficient on both counts.” 

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