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(mis)Use Of UAPA For Strangulating Activists Working For Adivasis: The Case Of Stan Swamy

Stanislaus Lourduswamy was an Indian priest of the Roman Catholic Church and was popularly known as Father Stan Swamy. Stan Swamy was born in Trichy (Tamil Nadu), on the 26th of April 1937 and passed away on the 5th of July 2021. His tragic death inside the Indian prison, was a huge blow to many, especially to the Adivasi community of the Chotanagpur region, as Swamy had been a popular Tribal Rights Activist for decades, in this region. On the 8th of October, 2020, Swamy was accused and arrested for being a participant in the Bhima Koregaon violence (2018), and for being a “sympathizer”, of the Communist Party of India (Maoists). He was arrested by the National Investigation Agency under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, also known as the UAPA. The arrest of Swamy and many others under the UAPA along with his tragic demise, sparked heated debates around the act itself.

Swamy claimed that he had been wrongfully accused, as during the said period, he was not in Pune. The Roman Catholic Community stood firm in his support and argued that Swamy could not have been linked to the CPI (Maoist) organization at any cost, as it went against the ethos and principles of the Jesuit congregation, the Roman Catholic congregation where Swamy was serving. Stan Swamy and Sudha Bharadwaj founded the Persecuted Prisoners Solidarity Committee (PPSC), which fought for prisoners who had been wrongfully incarcerated, under the pretext of being a Maoist or having links to CPI (Maoist). The PPSC was working to release roughly around 3000 Adivasi women and men, all of whom had been accused, arrested and incarcerated for being a “sympathizer” of Maoism or for having “Maoist links”. The authorities argued that the PPSC was a front for raising funds that supported “Maoist activities”.

Pic of Father Stan Swamy (Source:-Mid-day file pic)

The supporters of Swamy, including All India Catholic Union, The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Jesuit Community, Student Activists, multiple civil rights organizations and the like; protested stating that the method and process of alleging and arresting Swamy evidently showed that his arrest was politically motivated due to his work among the Adivasis, especially of the Chotanagpur region. The Chief Ministers of Jharkhand and Kerala i.e, Soren and Vijayan respectively, objected to his arrest. Leaders of the opposition parties put forth the same demand. On 21st of October, 2020, a protest was held, asking for the release of Stan Swamy, which was spearheaded by various political parties, social activists, lawyers, Tribal Rights activists, journalists and professors. Swamy was also suffering from Parkinson's disease and his medical needs remained unmet while he was at the Taloja jail. His basic needs were being delayed. On 5th of July, 2021, Swamy passed away due to medical conditions. While this was tragic for his supporters and for all those he had worked for, in his lifetime, it was equally tragic in the sense that it portrays the real condition of the Indian prisons and the Indian legal system, which could not provide basic medical needs to Swamy, on time. Nonetheless, the major debate surrounding Swamy’s arrest and his death was on the UAPA.

In 1967, the UAPA was enacted under the Indira Gandhi government, which became possible after the constitutional amendment of 1963, during the term of Jawaharlal Nehru as the Prime Minister. However, it has its precursor is the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1908, which was issued by the British colonial government in India. The act enacted after the constitutional amendment of 1963, allowed the Parliament to make laws imposing restrictions on the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, to assemble without arms and to form associations (Dutta 2021). In order to protect the sovereignty of the nation, in 1967, the UAPA granted powers to the central government to deal with “activities directed against the sovereignty and integrity of India” (ibid). However, ‘Terrorism’ was not covered in this act. It was only after the lapse of TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act) in 1995 and the repealing of POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act ) in 2004, that UAPA was amended to include terror and terrorism in India. It became the principal terror law in India.

UAPA is characterized by making bail difficult. The court has to depend on the police documents to presume guilt of the accused. It should be noted that the conviction rate under UAPA is minimal, however, in recent years, arrests made under the UAPA have gone up drastically. While a large number of cases have been registered under UAPA, only around 2 % of these cases have culminated into convictions by court (TOI 2021). In 2019, further amendments were made to the UAPA enacted in 1967, however there were no visible changes in terms of the number of persons arrested under the act and the number of people arrested from specific communities and sections of the society.

Moreover, the act grants ultimate jurisdiction to the central government to determine if an act is illegal or a threat to India’s sovereign fabric. As such this power has been misused and abused. In 2020, Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha, the three college students who had been arrested after the Delhi riots (2020), under UAPA, were granted bail by the Delhi High Court, which also stated that UAPA is being misused. In 2019, Akhil Gogoi, the peasant leader from Assam was charged under UAPA, but was ultimately granted bail. There are numerous more instances which indicate that when the state feels weakened and threatened by the demands of the citizens, which it does not want to adhere to, UAPA is used as a shielding weapon. Moreover, it should be flagged that while the UAPA was being enacted, there was no consultation before the legislation. “The opposition had expressed reservations over the revisions, claiming that they went against the country’s federal system, codified in the Indian Constitution” (Oliveboard 2021). Apart from these procedural criticisms of the act, one of the major concerns is that the UAPA undermines and violates the concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. This is so because individuals arrested under the UAPA are automatically presumed to be ‘terrorists’ and therefore labeled as well as treated as such. The act of designating an individual as terrorist, has high potential of abuse. It becomes easy to target individuals due to various socio-political reasons and designate them as terrorists by invoking UAPA.

On the first anniversary of Swamy on 5th of July, Father Frazer Mascarenhas, former principal of St. Xavier’s Mumbai, remembered the priest who worked at the grassroots and became the voice of those who were not being heard, who many believe was falsely implicated and unjustly incarcerated in the BK-16 case (Pinto 2022). Swamy’s anniversary is a harsh reminder of laws and acts that are enacted on the pretext of security and protection of citizens and the nation, nonetheless end up being misused and abused against the same citizens that they were supposed to protect. It is a reminder of how a social activist working for the most unprivileged section of the Indian society, the Adivasis, can be punished in a cruel way for his work with the misuse of laws and acts like the UAPA.

About the Author:- The author is a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interest areas include Gender, Rights and Public Health. She has also served as a guest faculty of Political Science and International Relations, at the University of Delhi.


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