[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE Lok Sabha passed the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 on July 24, 2019, amid concerns and a walkout by the Congress, DMK and Trinamool Congress MPs who asked that the bill be sent to a Parliamentary Standing Committee for further scrutiny of the proposed amendments.
Under the existing Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, the Centre could notify organizations as ‘terrorist organizations’ by adding them to the First Schedule of the Act under Section 35(1)(a). The proposed amendment authorizes the Centre to designate individuals as “terrorists” by amending Section 35 and adding a Fourth Schedule to include a list of individuals.
Opposition concerns and protests in the Lok Sabha
Members of Parliament from the Indian National Congress (INC), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) expressed grave concerns regarding the nature of the amendment.
TMC MP Mahua Moitra warned that political targeting would only increase with the Bill being passed and that further empowering the NIA to probe offences, superseding the state police machinery would go against the federal structure of the nation.“Opposition leaders, rights activists, minorities, anyone who doesn’t seem to agree with the homogenous idea of India that the government thrusts upon us, is at risk,” she said.
NCP MP Supriya Sule expressed concerns regarding the numerous cases in which the UAPA has been misused against political dissidents and activists, and said that powers that will allow individuals to be notified as terrorists would only increase the misuse.
Pinaki Mishra of the BJD added that better coordination among the security agencies and police reform was necessary to prevent misuse, as most of the accused under the UAPA belong to minority communities and Dalits.
Other opposition members such as V.N. Borlakunta (TRS), Danish Ali (BSP), Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMIM) and Adhir Ranjan Choudhary (INC) also cited various problems with the Bill. The DMK, TMC and INC lawmakers walked out in protest against the provisions of the Bill and its introduction in the Lok Sabha.
Responding to the concerns, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said that the amendment was necessary to keep law enforcement agencies ahead of terrorists and to drive out terrorism in the country.
He added that the law would not be misused as there was an elaborate procedure before anyone could be declared a terrorist.
The Home Minister also said the government has no sympathy for the people who “promote Urban Maoism in the name of ideology”.
The UAPA and the Amendment Bill, 2019
In 1967 the Congress government introduced the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Bill in Parliament, explaining that it was necessary for protecting the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the country. In 2004, the government repealed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) after widespread protests about its misuse. At the same time, however, they amended the UAPA adding sections relating to ‘unlawful activity’, ‘terrorist act’, ‘terrorist organisation’ and introducing the concept of a ‘terrorist gang’. The Act further allowed detention without a chargesheet for 180 days, and created an adverse presumption against bail.
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 was introduced with a primary view to overcome the difficulties being faced by the NIA in the investigation and prosecution of terrorist-related cases due to certain legal infirmities and also to align the domestic law with international obligations as mandated in several Conventions and Security Council Resolutions on the issue.
It empowers the Director-General of the NIA to grant approval of seizure or attachment of property when a case is being investigated by the agency by superseding the state DGP. Section 35 of the Act has been proposed to be amended to add or remove from the proposed Fourth Schedule the names of individuals terrorists. As of now, only organizations can be termed as terrorist organisations. Further, a new clause inserted in section 43 empowers an officer of inspector rank of the NIA to investigate chapter V and VI offences.
The Government has claimed that the National Investigative Agency finds it difficult to deal with individuals engaged in terror activities under the present legal regime and hence the provision to designate individuals as terrorists were introduced via the amendment.
The UAPA gives the State unbridled power to ban organizations, arrest and detain without a charge sheet for over six months and almost always have no fear that courts will intervene for bail procedures. With the passing of this amendment, it now further expands and centralizes these powers.
Various civil society groups have advocated a check on these powers or the repeal of the Act. An umbrella organisation called the Peoples’ Movement against UAPA has described the provisions as draconian.