scales of justice

Aisha Sultana, a native of Lakshadweep’s Chetlat island, is today one of India’s visible faces in the cry for justice! She is a well-known actor and director and an activist. Lakshadweep, a Union Territory, is an archipelago of 36 islands in the Arabian Sea: a paradise with pristine beauty. Its 70,000-strong population is predominantly Muslim (with smaller percentages of Hindus and Christians); although the people of Lakshadweep have strong ties with Kerala (the nearest place to the Indian mainland), they have a distinct social and cultural identity.

Recently, the current administrator (a hard-line politician of the ruling party) introduced a slew of draft legislation, which has sparked widespread protests not only in Lakshadweep but all over the country. The proposed policies are clearly anti-people and unjust, bound to have a wide-ranging impact on the islands: on the lives and livelihoods of Lakshadweep’s residents. A land development plan gives the administrator vast powers to take over land and relocate people, and provides for stringent penalties for those who resist. The plan allows for mining and exploitation of mineral resources in the islands. Under the new rules, the slaughter of cows and transport of beef products has been made an offense. The Prevention of Anti-Social Activities (PASA) Regulation provides for detention of a person without any public disclosure for a period of up to a year. The legislations are clearly designed to help the crony capitalist friends of the ruling regime!

During a debate on a Malayalam news channel recently, Sultana blamed the administrator for the surge in coronavirus cases in the Union Territory. She said the Centre was using him as a “bio-weapon” against the people of Lakshadweep. A case of sedition was filed against her with the complainant accusing her of “anti-national comments” and “tarnishing the patriotic image of the central government”. Aisha has plenty of support coming her way with many saying that the filmmaker was only speaking for the rights of the people on the islands and about the administrator’s “unscientific, irresponsible draconian decisions”. On 17 June, the Kerala High Court granted her interim bail if she is arrested but also directed her to appear before the police in Lakshadweep for interrogation.

Then we have the case of the three anti-CAA student activists: Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, from the JNU (members of women’s rights group Pinjra Tod), and Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha; all three of them were languishing in jail for more than a year, incarcerated under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). On 15 June, the Delhi High Court granted bail to the three of them. The Court order was a singular blow for freedom of speech and expression and the right to dissent. Among other things the order said, “In its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred” …”If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.” The court also said there was a “complete lack of any specific, factual allegations…. other than those spun by mere grandiloquence” and “(such serious sections) must be applied in a just and fair way, lest it unjustly ropes within its ambit persons whom the Legislature never intended to punish.”

The court said that in establishing a prima facie case under the UAPA provisions, there have to be “specific or particularised” allegations. It notes that the prosecution has only made inferences about three activists, using “hyperbolic verbiage.” Adding, “Allegations relating to inflammatory speeches, organising of chakka jaam, instigating women to protest and to stock-pile various articles and other similar allegations, in our view, at worst, are evidence that the appellant participated in organising protests, but we can discern no specific or particularised allegation, much less any material to bear-out the allegation, that the appellant incited violence, what to talk of committing a terrorist act or a conspiracy or act preparatory to the commission of a terrorist act as understood in the UAPA.”

At the core of the High Court judgement are two principles fleshed out in assertive language. Primarily, unless the ingredients of the UAPA are clearly made out in the conduct of the accused, protest and dissent cannot be outlawed by labelling them as a terrorist act. Secondly, UAPA can be applied only in exceptional circumstances. The draconian law cannot be invoked for crimes that do not fall under these exceptions, however egregious they might be; by establishing these principles and making several other crucial points, the Court has managed to put important fetters on the abuse of the UAPA provisions.

The Delhi Police (directly controlled by the Central Government) however, are unhappy with this judgement. They delayed releasing the three activists on bail, for more than two days and of course, they challenged the validity of the judgement in the Supreme Court. On 18 June, in their prayer, the Delhi Police wanted the Apex Court to stay the High Court order because they felt that it virtually records the acquittal of the accused and others would seek bail using this as precedent. The Supreme Court however, upheld the Delhi High Court’s order granting the three activists bail. It also added that the Court’s verdict of bail for the three – charged with conspiracy under strict anti-terror law UAPA – could not be used as precedent for future cases. What was indeed ‘surprising’ was the comment of the Supreme Court saying that the verdict of the Delhi High Court was ‘surprising!’ It agreed, however, to examine the legal aspects of the High Court verdict, and said the case would be taken up next month. Some of the recent blatantly biased pronouncements by the Apex Court make most concerned citizens wince!!

The UAPA is draconian and anti-Constitutional. It has been used selectively to crush voices of dissent and throttle those who take up cudgels on behalf of those crying out for justice: the Dalits and the Adivasis, the migrant workers and the slum-dwellers, the excluded and the exploited. We see it the case of Fr Stan Swamy and the fifteen others incarcerated in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. There are hundreds in jail today, like Umar Khalid and Siddique Kappan, under the UAPA, not because they are terrorists but because they dared to take on a corrupt and fascist regime. There is absolutely no doubt about that. Journalists and academics, as we saw in the case of Sulabh Shrivastava in UP, are killed because they demonstrated the courage to confront the mafia.

The nation is fuming just now as more than a hundred thousand residents of the Khori village on the Delhi-Haryana border under the jurisdiction of the Faridabad Municipal Corporation, are being evicted from their homes following a Supreme Court order of 7 June. The order said that the Khori basti is an encroachment on the Aravalli Forest land and so deemed it fit to order the municipal corporation to undertake evictions using force if needed. The vast majority of the Khori residents are ordinary workers of the NCR. They perform a range of services that are essential for the Capital. The early residents were quarry workers who got stuck in a vicious cycle of debt to the quarry contractors. Over the years, urban poor who have been displaced from various bastis in Delhi to make way for urban development projects have also settled here. A large group also comprises low-income families who have migrated from the neighbouring states in search of jobs. It is true that the land of Khori Gaon officially belongs to the government; but these residents have been sold little parcels of land by dubious land dealers through power of attorney documents. The houses they have built are their entire life’s savings. Over the years they have spent their meagre resources to obtain water and electricity services. Among the one hundred thousand to be displaced are apparently more than 5,000 pregnant and lactating women and over 20,000 minors.

Ordinary people: casual workers, daily wage earners, migrant workers, the unemployed bear the brunt of an inhuman and unjust system which caters to the whims and fancies, the profiteering of a few privileged elite!  An important report ‘No Country for Workers’ released on 16 June highlights this painful reality. The report by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) focuses on the ‘COVID-19 Second Wave, Local Lockdowns and Migrant Worker distress in India’. The Report states that 92 percent of India’s workforce faces historic and unprecedented crisis and it relays the struggles of workers in their own words, the limited action taken by the central and state governments to arrest the continuing and alarming level of distress.  Mainstream media today has conveniently obliterated the ongoing farmer’s protest. It is more than seven months now and the farmers are unrelenting. They are clear, that despite all the difficulties and the suffering that they have to go through the three anti-farmer laws must be repealed totally and unconditionally by the Government!

There are the so-called ‘love jihad’ laws which are patently unconstitutional, which deny an adult citizen the freedom to marry the person of his/her choice and for that matter also to embrace the religion of his/her choice. Already on 18 June a first arrest was made in Gujarat (and two days later, the second arrest) under the amended law which came into effect on 15 June. In Gujarat the rights of minorities to administer their educational institutions are systematically being abrogated.

From Aisha Sultana to Natasha, Devangana Kalita and Asif ; from Khori to Lakshadweep; from the Tihar jail to Taloja jail: from Fr Stan to Umar; from the BK16 to the other UAPA incarcerated; from Sulabh to Siddique; from the farmers to the workers; from the unemployed to the refugees; from the minorities to the marginalised; from the caregivers to the academics; from the toolkits to brazen headlines; from rising costs of essential commodities   to the scandalous growing gap between the rich and the poor-the cries for justice in India, have never been so unified, shrill and clear! Every section of the country is today saying ‘enough is enough’ to the blatant and insensitive lack of political will to adhere to the tenets of the Constitution, to democratic values and the fundamental rights of all citizens. Until the time that becomes a reality, the nation will continue to cry for justice!

(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)


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