The indiscriminate use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) has attracted a lot of attention in recent days, in the wake of Bhima-Koregaon, the Delhi violence, and cases in Uttar Pradesh, the latest being that of a Kerala journalist en route to Hathras. However, away from mainstream focus, the UAPA has regularly exacted its highest toll in the Kashmir Valley, judging by the sheer number of people arrested under the law.
One point of comparison for Kashmir has been the Northeast. It is true that, just going by the count of UAPA cases, Jammu and Kashmir logs a lesser figure compared to North-eastern states. But if one looks at the very high number of people arrested under the law from the Valley, a massive skew shows up. And contrary to what people may assume, the circumstances under which UAPA is invoked often seem very far in intent, scale or seriousness to anything that may be held to warrant it by even its ardent votaries.
For instance, on September 3, the Jammu and Kashmir Police booked 10 youths in Kashmir’s Shopian district under the UAPA for taking part in a cricket match. The police authorities have alleged that the match was being conducted in “the memory of” Syed Rubani, a slain Al-Badr militant, who was killed last year.
Earlier this year on April 20, Kashmiri photojournalist Masrat Zahra was also booked under UAPA for indulging in “anti-national” activities through social media. A press release issued by the J&K Police claimed Srinagar’s Cyber Police Station received information that “the Facebook user (Zahra) is...believed to be uploading photographs which can provoke the public to disturb law and order.” Zahra claimed she was merely sharing her work on social media.
In February this year, the Cyber Police Station Kashmir Zone, Srinagar, registered an FIR against various social media users for defying government orders that banned the use of social media in the region. This case was also registered under UAPA.
Information gathered from the latest publications of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicates Assam and Manipur have a higher number of cases registered under UAPA as compared to Jammu and Kashmir since 2014. For instance, in 2017, the total number of cases registered in Manipur was 330, while in Jammu and Kashmir only 156 cases were registered during the same year. While that may make it appear that UAPA is not as strictly imposed in J&K as compared to Manipur or Assam, there is a sharp disparity in the number of people arrested under those cases. Government data itself reveals this high disproportionality.
Data released in response to an RTI filed by this reporter shows that, in 2018, Kashmir alone registered 384 cases, but the number of persons arrested stood at way more than double that figure—882. In 2019, as many as 393 UAPA cases were registered in the region and the number of persons arrested was 881. In contrast, 330 cases were registered in Manipur in 2017 and only 352 persons were arrested.
If one compares the figure of 882 arrests in the conflict-ridden Valley in 2018 to the rest of the country, that high disproportionality shows up again. According to information shared by MoS Home G. Kishan Reddy in the Rajya Sabha last year, the total number of people arrested under UAPA throughout the country during 2015, 2016 and 2017 was 1,128, 999 and 1,554 respectively.
There is also a stark disparity in the number of people arrested in Jammu versus Kashmir. Out of the 10 districts of Jammu, a “nil” report was received from Udhampur, Kathua and Samba for UAPA cases registered from January 2014 to November 2019. In Doda district, 25 people were arrested during 2018 and 2019, one person was arrested in Rajouri in 2018, five people in Ramban in 2019 and three in Resai in 2019.
Speaking to Outlook, senior Supreme Court advocate Colin Gonsalves claims the lack of record of arrests under UAPA in Kashmir helps the local police go scot-free without accountability. “The technique is very simple. In places like Jammu and Kashmir, a person is simply taken into custody after being charged with UAPA and disappeared for weeks and months. There’s no record of his arrest at all. In such a case, how can family members lodge a complaint? Who will dare check the police?” asks Gonsalves.
One such case outside Kashmir, where an individual lost the prime of his youth in prison after being wrongly accused of terrorism under UAPA, was that of Mohammad Aamir Khan from Delhi. He was acquitted of all charges in 2012 after spending 14 long years in prison.
There is no provision for government compensation in such cases where the accused is proven innocent by the courts. Speaking to this reporter in 2017, Khan had bemoaned, “If the government can pay and rehabilitate surrendered militants in the Northeast, why can’t it give us, the acquitted, a decent compensation for ruining our lives?”
Any person charged under UAPA can be jailed for up to seven years. The law, with its roots going back to the Sixteenth Amendment of 1963 that brought in India’s “sovereignty and integrity” as basic categories and enabled penalties for putting that at risk, was enacted in 1967. The UAPA has subsequently been highly criticised by numerous human rights activists for granting the government unrestricted powers to curb freedom of speech. Under the latest amendment brought to the law and cleared by Parliament in August last year, the government has also been granted the right to charge individuals as terrorists.
In general, UAPA cases have seen a massive spike lately, especially since the anti-CAA protests. Numerous students and activists have been charged under it, including ex-JNU scholar Umar Khalid, Jamia Millia Islamia’s PhD scholar Safoora Zargar, Pinjra Tod members Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, former Congress municipal councillor Ishrat Jahan and Khalid Saifi of United Against Hate. The latest amendment to the Act empowers the government to name any and all of them as “terrorists.”