Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 is the cornerstone of India’s legislative policy against terrorism. Often dubbed draconian because of its provisions, was enacted with an object to control unlawful activities. It embodies the essence of the Preventive Detention Act which expired in 1969. Over the years the act has gone through several amendments to widen the ambit of its application. This article illustrates the history and the recent amendment made to the act.
Background of the UAPA
UAPA was first passed in the year 1967. The origin of the act lies in the recommendation of a committee appointed by the National Integration Council, to look into the issue of ‘National integration and regionalization’ for introducing ‘reasonable restrictions’. Based on the findings of the committee, the Constitution (16th Amendment) Act, 1963 was passed that introduced reasonable restrictions in the exercise of certain fundamental rights, namely:
• Freedom of Speech and Expression.
• Right to assembly peacefully.
• Right to form associations and unions.
In order to enable the implementation of these restrictions, UAPA was introduced and enacted in the year 1967.
Since then the act has gone through several amendments, altering the ambit of its scope of applicability. One of the key amendments in the act was made in the year 2004. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 2004, increased its ambit by including punishment for ‘Terrorist Act’ which was defined in S. 15 under Chap IV of the act. Interestingly enough, 2004 was also the year when the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was repealed. Therefore, prompting many to term the amendment as an attempt to keep the spirit of POTA alive.
The horrific aspect of the UAPA, which makes it even more dreadful is that a person when booked under the act can be detained for a period of 6 months (or 180 days) without even filing a charge sheet. In contrast to this and to better understand the severity of this, it should be mentioned that under ordinary criminal law, this period is only limited to 3 months (90 days) after which the detained person gets a right to bail.
Amendment of 2019
Initially, only organisations could be banned or prosecuted for a terrorist act. But after the amendment in 2019 which was passed by the Rajya Sabha on 2nd Aug 2019 and received the assent of the President on 8th August 2019, the central government can declare an individual as a terrorist. Thus, vastly increasing the power under the act. Although the individual can file an objection within 45 days with the Home Ministry against such declaration. Also, a review committee will be set up with a retired or a sitting judge as its head along with 3 other members the aggrieved party can file for review to the committee.
The amendment has been heavily criticized for its despotic power to curb dissent. Under it, the government has been given powers to designate an organization as well as an individual as a terrorist organization/ terrorist if;
• It commits or participates in acts of terrorism.
• Prepares or promotes terrorism.
• Otherwise involved in terrorism.
The opposition has time and again raised concerns that the recent amendment could be misused against political opponent’s civil society activists. In criminal law, every accused is presumed ‘innocent until proven guilty’. This principle is the bedrock of the criminal justice system. UAPA, especially after the amendment of 2019, is in contradiction to this principle. As a result of which it has been criticised for being in derogation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1967.
The validity of the amendment has been challenged in a PIL, Sajal Awasthi v. Union of India and the same is pending in the apex court and at the crux of this matter is the S 35 of the Act which empowers the Central Government to add a name of any organisation or individual in the fourth schedule (list of declared terrorists).
Recently the law is once again at the centre of a controversy which has ensued after the arrest of student leader Umar Khalid in relation to his alleged role in Delhi riots that shook the National Capital earlier this year. In the past year, many prominent activists have been detained under UAPA, which has caused an outcry amongst political spheres. Some of the prominent names are, Masrat Zahra, Professor Anand Teltumbde, Safoora Zargar, Sharjeel Imam, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha amongst many others.
Recently, retired Supreme Court Judge, Justice Madan Lokur , has expressed concern over the use of UAPA to curb dissent.