Tripura government is receiving flak after Tripura police invoked the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and booked 102 people including Supreme Court lawyers and rights activists based on their social media posts on alleged violence against minority places of worship in Tripura.
Editors Guild of India(EGI), several human rights bodies, the opposition Congress and CPI(M) have lambasted the state government for booking journalists under the anti-terror law.
"The government cannot use such stringent laws to suppress reporting on communal violence incidents," the Editor's Guild of India said in a statement. It added that it was “deeply shocked” at the police’s action against journalists and said it was an attempt by the Tripura government to deflect attention away from its own failure to control majoritarian violence.
Tripura Police on Saturday booked 102 social media account holders under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), criminal conspiracy and forgery charges and served notices to the authorities of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to freeze their accounts and inform all particulars of those persons to it.
This action came after Tripura Police registered a case against four Supreme Court lawyers under the stringent act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code for allegedly promoting communal disharmony with their social media posts on the recent violence in the state targeting Muslims.
The EGI said, “The Editors Guild of India is deeply shocked by the Tripura Police's action of booking 102 people, including journalists, under the coercive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for reporting and writing on the recent communal violence in the state.”
The Guild said one of the journalists, Shyam Meera Singh, has alleged that he has been booked under the UAPA for merely tweeting 'Tripura is burning'. Taking a dig at the government, Singh tweeted that the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act had four words and his tweet had three.
“This is an extremely disturbing trend where such a harsh law, where in the process of investigation and bail applications are extremely rigorous and overbearing, is being used for merely reporting on and protesting against communal violence.
The Guild is of the opinion that this is an attempt by the state government to deflect attention away from its own failure to control majoritarian violence, as well as to take action against the perpetrators of this. Governments cannot use stringent laws like UAPA to suppress reporting on such incidents,” the statement read.
The EGI demanded that the state government conduct an objective and fair investigation into the circumstances of the rights instead of penalising journalists and civil society activists.
“Further, the Guild reiterates its earlier demand to the Supreme Court of India to take cognisance of the manner in which such laws are unjustifiably used against freedom of speech, and to issue stringent guidelines on charging journalist under them, so that these laws don't become an easy tool for suppressing press freedom,” it said.
The opposition Congress on Sunday demanded withdrawal of cases filed against those who have been booked including several Supreme Court lawyers for allegedly trying to "spread communal disharmony".
Tripura Pradesh Congress chief Birajit Sinha told PTI “the mosque at Panisagar was attacked by activists of VHP and houses of minority communities were vandalised by them... they should be arrested first. I do not think the lawyers, who visited the state, came with any bad intentions and did not spread any communal hatred. Government should immediately withdraw charges against them".
What Happened In Tripura?
A mosque was vandalised and two shops were set ablaze at Chamtilla during the October 26 Vishva Hindu Parishad rally, which was called to protest against the communal violence in neighbouring Bangladesh. Three houses and a few shops, reportedly owned by Muslims, were also ransacked in nearby Rowa Bazar, the police said.
Tripura Minister for Information and Culture, Sushanta Chowdhury on Saturday said, “A group from outside with vested interests had hatched a conspiracy against the administration to create unrest in Tripura and malign its image by uploading fake photographs of a burning mosque on social media after the October 26 incident at Panisagar. Legal actions must be initiated against them”
BJP spokesperson, Nabendu Bhattacharya added, “In the aftermath of attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh during Durga puja, a vested interest group was active to create communal disturbances in Tripura and in such a situation police cannot remain idle and so they started investigation. I am sure right to freedom of speech and expression was not infringed anyway”
The Tripura Human Rights Organisation (THRO) however criticized the state government for serving notices to the Supreme Court advocates and stated that it was a move to silence the voice of democratic rights.
What Tripura Police Has To Say?
Inspector General of Police (IG), Law and Order, Arindam Nath clarified that filing FIR does not mean "they are guilty."
"If those people have not said anything false or had no intention of spreading communal hatred or hatching any conspiracy, they should appear before police and clarify their position”, Nath told PTI.
He at the same time added that it had to come to the police force's notice that many netizens even used fake identities and tried to spread communal hatred and police had rightly taken initiative to identify and book them under law.
“We have served notices to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to freeze their accounts and inform us of all particulars of those persons to it”, Nath said.
Notices were served on Estesham Hashmi, Supreme Court lawyer, advocate Amit Srivastav, coodinator of Lawyers for Democracy, NCHRO national secretary Ansar Indori and PUCL member Mukesh Kumar who had visited Tripura as part of a fact finding team. In the notice to the lawyers, the police had asked them to delete the social media posts and appear before investigators by November 10.
Invoking UAPA 'Highly Condemnable': Tripura Human Rights Organisation
“The state government’s action is highly condemnable. Those who perpetrated the violence are roaming freely, while the lawyers, who are also members of rights bodies who were trying to restore normalcy by bringing facts to light, were booked under stringent acts. It is not acceptable”, THRO said.
The opposition CPI(M) in a statement said, after the attack on minorities in Bangladesh a group of people tried to foment communal tensions in different parts of the state.
“When some lawyers visited the state as fact finders, cases were registered against them, this is an act of intolerance. If they had done any illegal activity then normal law was enough to take actions against them, but applying such stringent acts (as the UAPA) against them is an instance of intolerance”, the statement said.
The notice served on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube said, “…some persons/organization are publishing/posting distorted and objectionable news items/statements in Twitter regarding the recent clash and alleged attack upon mosques of Muslilm communities in the state."
...The posts have potential to flare up communal tension in Tripura state between people of different religious communities, which may result into communal riots”.
The cases against the social media account holders were registered at West Agartala police station under IPC sections 153A (promoting disharmony or feelings of enemity), 153 B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 469 (forgery), 471 (fraudulently or dishonestly using as genuine a forged document), 503 (threatening), 504 (intentional insult) and section 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 13 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
The case against the four SC lawyers was registered at West Agartala police station on November 3 under various sections of IPC including 153 (a) and (b) related to promoting disharmony, enmity or feelings of hatred between different groups on the grounds of religion, race etc, 469, 504, 120 (b) (criminal conspiracy), besides section 13 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. If convicted under the tough UAPA, an offender may face imprisonment up to seven years.