In late August, while investigating the violence at the Bhima Koregaon memorial in Pune earlier this year, the Pune police raided the homes of several well-known human-rights activists, scholars and lawyers, and arrested five among them. The arrests were made under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act—a law that has been widely criticised for its draconian nature. Amid public outcry over the arrests, the Congress too panned the government.
“There is only place for one NGO in India and it’s called the RSS,” the Congress’s president, Rahul Gandhi, tweeted. “Shut down all other NGOs. Jail all activists and shoot those that complain. Welcome to the new India. #BhimaKoregaon.” The Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi stepped up to argue in favour of the accused in the Supreme Court.
Regardless of such gestures by the Congress, we must remember that many of the tools that the BJP-led government is using to stifle dissent are creations of a time when the grand old party was in power. After Independence, several Indian governments repeatedly passed laws that were increasingly draconian, despite a history of widespread abuse of these laws by investigating agencies and the executive. The present crisis, a grave threat to freedom of expression in the country, is an outcome of the Indian state’s refusal to learn from history, and highlights the need for a better approach to tackling militancy.
The UAPA was first passed in 1967 by an Indira Gandhi-led Congress government as a measure against secessionism. Even though that version was not nearly as powerful as the present form of the act, it was criticised heavily in the parliament. Several opposition leaders—Atal Bihari Vajpayee, JB Kripalani and Piloo Mody, among others—spoke against the bill. “All these repressive laws violate the rule of law,” said Kripalani, adding that the UAPA “may be used by the executive for the purpose for which is not intended.” Most importantly, the UAPA gave the central and state governments the power to ban an organisation through an announcement alone.