Dissent isn’t terrorism

Dissent isn’t terrorism: HC bail order for Delhi riot accused shows why misuse of laws like UAPA damages democracy

Courts are applying much-needed correctives. Supreme Court’s critique of sedition law cases has been followed by Delhi high court’s strong and just observations while granting bail to Jamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha and Pinjra Tod activists Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal. HC’s order puts Delhi Police’s terrorism charge against the trio in grave doubt. The court couldn’t find evidence on record to justify three key UAPA provisions – committing terrorist acts, raising funds for terror, and conspiracy – slapped on them. This is especially significant because invoking UAPA severely narrows bail options, unlike in the case of IPC provisions.

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In the Narwal and Kalita bail orders, Justices Mridul and Bhambhani observed that the state in its anxiety to suppress dissent has “blurred the line between the constitutionally guaranteed ‘right to protest’ and ‘terrorist activity’”. The judges flagged lack of “specific, particularised, factual allegations”. The larger point here is that laws like UAPA must be applied with rigorous fairness, not because non-autonomous police forces reckon that overenthusiastic use of these blunt instruments will earn them brownie points.

The Delhi HC said it clearly: “Foisting extremely grave and serious penal provisions engrafted in sections 15, 17 and 18 UAPA frivolously upon people, would undermine the intent and purpose of Parliament in enacting a law.” Courts must not condone state agencies “crying wolf”, the HC warned. Hopefully, courts everywhere and at all levels will act with this in mind. Let’s recall again that journalist Siddique Kappan has been incarcerated under UAPA since October.

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As for events that led to the trio’s arrest, the northeast Delhi riots, Delhi Police should, following judicial critique of its claims on ‘conspiracies’, look seriously and fairly into who and what caused those awful days of violence and killing. Misapplication of laws is not a substitute for proper investigative work.