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02/10/2018 11:17 AM IST | Updated 02/10/2018 11:40 AM IST

WATCH: Lawyer Rebecca John Breaks Down How The UAPA Can Criminalise Peaceful Dissent

Does the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 deter terrorists or silence dissenters? John asks.

The following text is the introduction to Rebecca John's public lecture on the Unlawful Activities (Prevention Act) of 1967. John, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court, delivered her address on 28 September at the Delhi High Court as part of an on-going series of lectures on law.

At the start of the Sino-Indo Conflict on 20 October 1962, a state of Emergency was declared under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, on grounds of external aggression. During the same time period, a domestic crisis was brewing with Mr. C.N. Annadurai, leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's (DMK) openly advocating his party's agenda of self-determination, including secession of Tamil Nadu from the Indian Union. The Central Government was in complete panic and wanted to put some restrictions on citizens' freedoms and consequently it introduced the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Bill, 1967 before the Emergency was to lapse. Thus, amidst high voltage debates marked by the need to uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) was born.

The UAPA, 1967 essentially and primarily dealt with "unlawful activity". Section 2(f), in simple words, defined unlawful activity, as any action by an individual or association which is intended to bring about cession/secession or such action as to disrupt or question the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India.

On 23May 1985, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, 1985 was enacted ostensibly to control terrorism in Punjab and other parts of the country. The Act introduced unprecedented provisions having overriding effect over the Criminal Procedure Code and the Constitution in many written and unwritten ways. Given the widespread allegations of misuse of the Act and its very low conviction rates, TADA was allowed to lapse under a sunset clause in 1995.

However, on 24December 1999 IC-814 was hijacked and on 13 December 2001 the Indian Parliament was attacked and in the backdrop of these two events it was felt that there was need to strengthen the anti-terrorism law and consequently the Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed by Parliament on 28 March 2002. But again, due to widely reported misuse of POTA including the arrest of Vaiko, the MDMK leader from Tamil Nadu under POTA, the Act was eventually repealed on 21December 2004.

By 2004, both these Acts stood repealed. The State felt there was a potential vacuum, and hence proceeded to graft terrorism offences of those statutes into the UAPA. The UAPA as it stands today deals with two qualitatively and fundamentally different kinds of criminal acts - "Unlawful Activity" and "Terrorist Acts".

One of the key problems with the current version of the UAPA, John says, is that

A careful examination of the definition of "unlawful activities" in the UAPA reveals that it has the potential to criminalise even those peaceful ideas, thought processes and actions that have no propensity to violence, or create public disorder or disturbance of law and order.

Watch the complete lecture for an insight into a law that is the subject of much conversation in the context of the recent arrest of lawyers and rights activists for allegedly supporting the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).