Arundhati Roy And Sheikh Shaukat Hussain Face UAPA Charges: A Critical Look At India's Controversial Laws

The prosecution of Arundhati Roy and Sheikh Shaukat Hussain under UAPA has sparked concerns over the misuse of legal frameworks in India.

Narendra Bisht
Arundhati Roy Photo: Narendra Bisht

Recently, UAPA and sedition have once again become the topic of discussion after Delhi L-G ordered the prosecution of Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy and Kashmiri academician Sheikh Shaukat Hussain in a 2010 case.

Roy and Hussain are accused of delivering ‘inflammatory’ speeches at a conference organised under the banner of 'Azadi - The Only Way' at the LTG auditorium on Copernicus Road in Delhi on October 21, 2010. The speakers included Syed Ali Shah Geelani, S.A.R Geelani, Arundhati Roy, Dr. Sheikh Shaukat Hussain and Poet Varavara Rao. However, S.A.S Geelani and S.A.R Geelani have died, all five speakers were either booked under UAPA or Sedition during their lifetime.

What is UAPA?

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was passed in 1967 and amended in 2004 and 2008. In August 2019, Parliament passed the UAPA (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which allows individuals to be declared terrorists based on certain norms. Unlike regular criminal laws, UAPA has separate rules and is harsher on the accused. Between 2016 and 2019, 4,231 cases were filed under UAPA and 112 were convicted, as per the National Crime Records Bureau.

The term "unlawful activities" is wide and vague and includes death, injury or damage to property. Section 43(D)(5) of UAPA denies bail and keeps a person in custody for years without trial, which is against fundamental rights despite constitutional protection.

For example, On October 3, 2023, Prabir Purkayastha, the founding editor of NewsClick was under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for allegedly promoting anti-national propaganda through the Newsclick portal and taking funding from China for this work.

Similarly, in March 2023, Irfan Mehraj, a journalist from Jammu and Kashmir, was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on charges of "terror funding." Mehraj had been reporting on the human rights situation in Kashmir, and his arrest was widely seen as an attempt to silence critical voices. Irfan has been booked under UAPA.

In July 2022, Rupesh Kumar Singh, a journalist from the state of Jharkhand was arrested from his house in Ramgarh by Kharsawan police. His partner Ipsa says that before Singh’s arrest, a dozen cops searched their house for nine hours and confiscated two laptops, two phones, and other things. Rupesh is also booked under UAPA.

What is Sedition?

Although the law of sedition has been upheld by the Supreme Court since May 2022, it is defined under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as any act that tends to bring into hatred or contempt or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in India by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representation. It was enacted during the British time in 1870 and is a non-bailable offence with 3 years to life imprisonment, a fine and government job and passport confiscation.

The law was made to suppress the dissent against colonial rule and was used against freedom fighters like M.K Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Though challenged in the constitution, the Supreme Court declared it constitutional in 1962 and narrowed down the meaning to public order and violence.

The Supreme Court’s decision to put the Sedition Law on hold has widely been celebrated but similar laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in 2020 has been implemented, with 80 people convicted. And in 2019, several individuals who were arrested under the UA(P)A, NSA and PSA are still being used as weapons by the Indian State. According to data presented by the Union Home Ministry, a total of 326 cases have been filed under the law of sedition between the years 2014-2019 - out of which only six have been convicted. 54 marks the highest number of cases filed in Assam followed by 40 in Jharkhand, 31 cases in Haryana and then 25 in Jammu and Kashmir followed by Bihar, Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.

Between 2018 and 2020, 4,690 persons were detained under the anti-terror law UAPA, but just 149 were convicted, as per the then Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai on 3rd of August. According to Rai, 1,321 individuals were detained under the UAP(A) in 2020, with 80 people convicted. And in 2019, 1,948 individuals were arrested under the UA(P)A, and 34 were convicted, whereas in 2018, 1,421 people were arrested, and 35 were convicted, he said in response to a written question in Rajya Sabha. According to the minister, the maximum total of individuals detained under the UA(P)A between 2018 and 2020 was 1,338 in Uttar Pradesh, followed by 943 in Manipur and 750 in Jammu and Kashmir.

If we just look at the past few years in Kashmir, the Indian government is seen stating that no journalists have been harassed since 2017 as a response to the PCI report while a PhD scholar gets arrested for writing an article, which the state calls provocative and seditious. Fahad Shah still languishes in Jail, and his house and office gets raided by the NIA and SIA. Asif Sultan gets bail after being jailed for 1318 days and within a week gets arrested under PSA.