A Cry for Justice that Keeps Getting Louder

A regime that oppresses the weak and suppresses those who speak against it will always have to deal with more and more dissent. The key to peace and justice in India lies in following the Constitution, writes CEDRIC PRAKASH


TODAY, Aisha Sultana, a native of the Chetlat island in Lakshadweep, is one of the most visible faces in the cry for justice! She is a well-known actor, director and activist. The Union Territory of Lakshadweep is an archipelago of 36 islands in the Arabian Sea, a paradise pristine in its 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 on the Indian mainland, they have a distinct social and cultural identity. 

Recently, the current administrator—a hardline 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 anti-people, unjust and bound to have a wide-ranging impact on the lives and livelihoods of Lakshadweep residents. 

land development plan gives the administrator vast powers to take over land and relocate people and provides stringent penalties against those who resist. The development plan allows for mining and exploitation of mineral resources in the islands. Under the new rules, the slaughter of cows and the transport of beef products is an offence. 

The Prevention of Anti-Social Activities (PASA) Regulation allows up to a year of detention, without any public disclosures. The legislations have been designed to help the crony capitalist friends of the ruling regime!

Also read: These are the 3 Lakshadweep draft laws that have triggered controversy

During a recent debate on a Malayalam news channel, Sultana blamed the administrator for the surge in Novel Coronavirus cases in Lakshadweep. She said the Centre was using him as a “bio-weapon” against the people of the Union Territory. 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”. 

Sultana has plenty of support coming her way. Many say the filmmaker was only speaking for the rights of the people of the islands and about the “unscientific, irresponsible” and “draconian” decisions of the administrator. On 17 June, the Kerala High Court granted her interim bail if she is arrested but directed her to appear for interrogation before the Lakshadweep police.

Also read: Sedition case against filmmakers: BJP leaders, workers in Lakshadweep quit party in protest

We also have the case of the three anti-CAA student activists: JNU scholars Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, who are members of the women’s rights group Pinjra Tod, and Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha. All three languished in jail for more than a year after they were charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). 

On 15 June, the Delhi High Court granted bail to the three. The court order is a strident defence of freedom of speech and expression and the right to dissent. Among other things, it says, “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 said there was a “complete lack of any specific, factual allegations…other than those spun by mere grandiloquence”. The court held that 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 Delhi High Court said that in establishing a prima facie case under the UAPA, there have to be “specific or particularised” allegations. It notes that the prosecution has only made inferences about three activists using “hyperbolic verbiage”. It said that the allegations that relate 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.”

The court said it 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, which it has fleshed out assertively. Primarily, unless the ingredients of the UAPA are clear from the conduct of the accused, protest and dissent cannot be outlawed by labelling them as terrorist acts. Secondly, UAPA can be applied only in exceptional circumstances. This draconian law cannot be invoked for crimes that not covered by these exceptions, however egregious they might be. Through establishing these principles and several other crucial points, the court has placed necessary fetters on the abuse of UAPA. 

However, the Delhi Police, which is under the direct control of the Centre, is unhappy with this judgement. It delayed releasing the three activists on bail for more than two days. Of course, it has challenged the validity of the judgement in the Supreme Court. 

On 18 June, in their prayer, Delhi Police wanted the apex court to stay the High Court order because it felt that it virtually amounts to the acquittal of the accused, and others would seek bail using this order as precedent. 

The Supreme Court upheld the Delhi High Court order granting the three activists bail. It added that the verdict of bail for the three—charged with conspiracy under strict anti-terror law UAPA—would not be a precedent for future cases. 

What is indeed ‘surprising’ is the comment of the Supreme Court 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 of the apex court make most concerned citizens wince!

The UAPA is draconian and anti-constitutional. It has been selectively used to crush dissenters and throttle those who take up a cudgel on behalf of those who are crying out for justice: the Dalits and the Adivasis, the migrant workers and slum-dwellers, the excluded and exploited. 

Also read: Modi Govt Sleeps On, Migrant Workers’ Crisis Continues

We see this in the case of Fr Stan Swamy and fifteen others incarcerated in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. There are hundreds in jail today under the UAPA, such as Umar Khalid and Siddique Kappan, not because they are terrorists but because they dared to take on a regime that will not tolerate dissent. There is absolutely no doubt about that. 

Journalists and academics, as we saw in the Sulabh Shrivastava case in Uttar Pradesh, are killed because they demonstrated the courage to confront the mafia. 

The nation is fuming 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 says the Khori Basti encroached on Aravalli forest land and deemed fit to order the municipal corporation to undertake evictions, using force if needed. 

Also read: Second wave of Covid-19 has left migrant workers in India with no savings and few job opportunities

The vast majority of Khori residents are workers in 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, the poor displaced from various bastis in Delhi to make way for urban development projects have also settled here. A large group comprises low-income families who have migrated from neighbouring states in search of jobs. 

It is true that the land of Khori village officially belongs to the government, but these residents have been sold little land parcels by dubious dealers through power-of-attorney documents. They have built houses using their entire life savings. Over the years, they have spent their meagre resources to obtain water and electricity services. 

Among the one lakh to be displaced in Khori village are more than 5,000 pregnant women and lactating mothers and over 20,000 children. Ordinary people—casual workers, daily wage earners, migrant workers, the unemployed—bear the brunt of an inhuman and unjust system that caters to the whims and fancies, the profiteering of a few privileged elites! 

An important report, ‘No Country for Migrant Workers’, released on 16 June, highlights this painful reality. A report by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) focuses on the “COVID-19 Second Wave, Local Lockdowns and Migrant Worker Distress in India”. Its says 92% of the workforce faces a historic and unprecedented crisis. It relays the struggles of workers in their words, the limited action taken by the central and state governments to arrest their continuing and alarming distress

Today, the mainstream media has conveniently obliterated the ongoing farmer’s protest. For more than seven months, the farmers have stayed unrelenting in their opposition to the three anti-farmer laws. They are clear that despite all the difficulties and suffering they have to go through, these laws must be repealed totally and unconditionally by the government.

There are the so-called “love jihad” laws that are patently unconstitutional and deny adult citizens the freedom to marry the person of their choice and for that matter, to embrace the religion of their choice. On 18 June, Gujarat arrested the first person under its amended law, which came into effect less than 72 hours earlier. In Gujarat, the rights of minorities to administer their educational institutions are systematically being abrogated.

From Aisha Sultana to Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha. From Khori to Lakshadweep. From Tihar Jail to Taloja Jail. From Fr Stan Swami to Umar Khalid. From the Bhima-Koregaon sixteen to the other UAPA-incarcerated. From Sulabh to Siddique, from farmers to workers, from the unemployed to the refugees, from minorities to the marginalised, from the caregivers to the academics, from the toolkits to the brazen headlines, from rising costs to lack of vaccines—the cries for justice in India have never been so shrill and clear! 

Every section of the country is saying enough is enough! There is a blatant and insensitive lack of political will to adhere to the tenets of the Constitution, democratic values and the fundamental rights of all citizens. Until the time that becomes a reality, the nation will continue to cry for justice!

(Father Cedric Prakash is a human rights and peace activist and writer. The views expressed are personal.)