By Tanu Singh, Ramjas College, New Delhi.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah put forward a Bill on 9 July 2019, proposing amendments in the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967. On 24 July the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha cleared the Bill with 147 voting in favour and 42 against. UAPA, implemented in 1967, is an Act ‘to provide for the more effective prevention of certain unlawful activities of individuals and associations and for matters connected therewith’. It assigns absolute power to the Central Government, by way of which, if the Centre deems an activity as unlawful then it may, by way of an Official Gazette, declare it so.

The Bill essentially proposes four changes under the existing Act:

  1. It provides that an individual will be declared a terrorist if he commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares, promotes or is otherwise involved in terrorism. The existing UAP Act only has provisions for declaring an organisation as a terrorist organisation and hence banning it.

  2. It empowers the Director General of the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to grant approval of seizure or attachment of property associated with terrorism, when the said Agency investigates the case. The existing UAP Act requires the Central government to obtain prior approval from the highest police officer in a State (i.e., The Director General of Police) before seizing or attaching any property associated with terrorism.

  3. It allows officers of the NIA, of the rank of Inspector or above, to investigate cases under the UAP Act. As per the existing UAP Act, only officers of the rank of Deputy Superintendent or Assistant Commissioner of Police or above are allowed to investigate cases.

  4. It broadens the scope of what constitutes a terrorist act. Among other things, the existing UAP Act defines terrorist acts to include acts committed within the scope of certain treaties listed in the schedule to the Act. The UAPA Bill has added another treaty, which is the International Convention for Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005) to the schedule of the UAP Act.

The Act has been amid controversies, time and again, and now the new Bill has sparked a hot debate again. The first provision has been backed by the argument that whenever a terrorist organisation is banned it resumes its operations under a different name, therefore, target should be individuals who are part of such organisations. 

Under the Bill, people involved in terrorist acts can be labeled as terrorists. But the definition of a ‘terrorist act’ exceedingly differs from the definition promoted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.  In 2006, the Special Rapporteur had said that to call an offense a ‘terrorist act’, three elements must be cumulatively present: the means used must be deadly; the intent behind the act must be to cause fear among the population or to compel a government or an international organization to do or refrain from doing something; and the aim must be to further an ideological goal.

On the other hand, acts of terrorism in the UAPA Bill include the death of, or injuries to any person, damage to any property, an attempt to overawe any public functionary by means of criminal force and any act to compel the government or any person to do or abstain from doing any act. It also includes any act that is ‘likely to threaten’ or ‘likely to strike terror in people’, giving unbridled power to the government to brand any ordinary citizen or activist a terrorist without the actual commission of these acts. It is this ambiguous nature of the Bill that has brought so much criticism to it.

In 2011, a 19-year-old girl, Jyoti Babasaheb Chorge was arrested in Pune for possessing books containing Maoist literature and was later booked under multiple sections of the UAP Act, 1967. The Bombay High Court allowing the bail petition of the accused in the matter stated: 

“That the possession of certain literature having a particular social or political philosophy would amount to an offence, though such literature is not expressly or specifically banned under any provision of law, is a shocking proposition in a democratic country like ours.”

It is evident that merely possessing revolutionary literature does not necessarily amount to an act of terrorism. However, under the new Bill, it will be a challenge for the government to deal with such cases. As per the Home Minister terrorism is not propagated just by guns but also by those who root terrorist ideologies in the minds of young people. The aim of the Bill is thus to declare such individuals as terrorists, but the Bill fails to clarify the manner in which such cases would be handled. Moreover, there is a very fine distinction between dissent and sedition. The provisions of the Bill as indicated, can be prone to misuse in cases where a person opposes the government or dissents politically. Even social activists, workers or critics who condemn government’s actions or policies could be booked under the Bill if the provisions are not defined further with more clarity. 

The provisions also allow the police to detain an accused for six months at a stretch without producing any evidence against them justifying such custody. Searches, seizures can now be conducted without any permission from the State, as under the new provision, the Director of the NIA can grant such approvals.The discretion to get cases investigated by the NIA vests with the Central Government. This provision is believed to be a possible threat to federalism as it allows consolidation of power at the Centre and takes away all authority from the States. 

However, many a times cases involving terrorism undertaken by the NIA, are linked to several States. In such situations, taking approvals from every State to conduct search and seizure operations, tends to delay the process in matters that require expeditious enquiries. Therefore, empowering the NIA in order to ensure efficient investigations across States is an essential step in the fight against terrorism and the provisions of the Bill should be commended for attempting the same.

Besides aspiring to tackle the primary issue of terrorism, the Bill serves the chief aim of the Central Government, which has once again tried to convey to the general public that national security is its top most priority and that it would be intolerant towards any act of terrorism. Due to its expanse and potential for mass destruction, terrorism has emerged as a core focus area of power politics across the globe, though in certain cases, it has been misused as a means of propaganda. 

The UAPA Bill can lead us to become a terrorism-free nation if the authorities are able to work their way around the provisions, which in their present form, are believed to be prone to misuse. However, misuse of the provisions leading to any actual abuse of human rights will give rise to situations that will add on to the troubles of the government which for now, is assertive to mitigate all acts of terrorism through the new Bill.