Tana Tamar, 31, an activist and Aam Aadmi Party member, was released on June 10 after a month in the district jail in Pasighat in East Siang, Arunachal Pradesh.

He was among 41 people across the state who were detained and jailed in May under the Arunachal Pradesh Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

Their crime? Calling for a 72-hour bandh from May 10 across the state to protest against alleged irregularities, including charges of bribery, in the conduct of an Arunachal Pradesh Public Service Commission exam in August last year.

The act allows for the detention of suspects for up till six months, with little to no legal recourse.

Superintendent of police (crime and special investigation team) Rohit Rajbir Singh told Scroll on June 11 that the detentions were made after Itanagar deputy commissioner Talo Potom decided to take action on the basis of intelligence reports apprehending law-and-order problems. “Seven to ten people are still in custody and the rest are released,” Singh said. The police officer did not say why they were still in custody.

Since August last year, Arunachal Pradesh has been roiled by protests against paper leaks in the recruitment examinations conducted by the state public service commission. Investigations pointed to a bigger scam, dating as far back as 2014, involving senior government officials and coaching institutes.

The Arunachal Pradesh government has responded to the protests with a heavy hand. It deployed the law, modelled on the central government’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, or UAPA, to quell the protests.

In the past, too, the state government has used the law to make mass detentions, say lawyers and activists.

But despite the police crackdown, the bandh received huge support in Itanagar and most districts of the state.

Journalist Tongam Rina of the Arunachal Times told Scroll on June 11 that the detentions had created a fearful environment. “The recent crackdown was to suppress the voice of protest against the paper leak scam,” she said.

“The government is trying to scare people,” said Rina. “It is like telling citizens that if you don’t listen to us, we can use it against you anytime.”

A protest against paper leaks

The Pan Arunachal Joint Steering Committee, which is spearheading the protest over the paper leak scam, has put out a 13-point set of demands in connection with the paper leak scam. The committee also demanded the arrest of former Arunachal Pradesh Public Service Commission chairman Nipo Nabam. Among the demands are declaring as “null and void” all exams conducted by the commission where anomalies were found.

Around the first week of May, a group of individuals called a bandh across the state in order to mount pressure on the state government.

On May 8, Itanagar Deputy Commissioner Potom declared the bandh call in the capital region “illegal”, “undemocratic” and “unconstitutional” while referring to a Supreme Court judgement, which held that a bandh call cannot infringe upon the fundamental rights of other citizens.

The Itanagar administration imposed Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure barring the assembly of more than three people at a time and invoked the Arunachal Pradesh UAPA. A day before the bandh, the state government snapped mobile internet services across Arunachal Pradesh – from 7 pm on May 9 to May 12.

The same day, the police cracked down on the protestors, even before the bandh began. Tamar, who was among those who had called for the bandh, was detained on May 9 from his home in Doimukh town, said his brother Tana Bullet.

Tamar told Scroll after he was released from jail on June 10 that the detentions were “illegal” and that the bandh call was only to protest the silence and inaction of the state government on the 13 demands. “But they did not allow us and curtailed our right to protest,” said Tamar.

He said he has been booked in nine police cases related to supporting the bandh in May as well as for damaging public property during an earlier protest.

In February, 10 people were injured during a protest against the paper leak scam in Itanagar as the police used tear gas and baton-charged protestors after they set vehicles on fire.

In the state capital Itanagar, a civil service aspirant, Jidam Rianuk Cherom, 27, was detained around May 9 for calling the bandh. Soon after his release, he was detained again in June under a different case, this time in connection with the protest in February.

His wife, Anibai Cherom, said her husband had signed and submitted an apology letter for calling for a bandh in February and an undertaking that he would not be involved in further incidents disrupting law and order. “I had heard that whatever had happened in February was resolved after the interference of the chief minister,” she said. “So, why was he detained in connection with the old issue?”

She added: “My husband did not commit any crime. He was only demanding the release of Sol Dudum and protesting against the paper leak scam.” Dudum, a prominent activist leading the protest, has been in detention since May 9.

Tamar’s bother Bullet alleged that the state government is acting with impunity and is intolerant of any criticism or opposition – “ruling government apna man marzi kar raha hain”. “They don’t allow us to speak against them,” said Bullet. “They want to control our right to protest. This is how the system is here – yahan par aisa hi system hain.”

The law was enacted in 2014 by the previous Congress government, but the current Bharatiya Janata Party-led state dispensation has frequently invoked it as well. In January last year, more than a hundred people were placed under preventive detention over a strike called by a tribal youth group to press for the resignation of Chief Minister Pema Khandu. At least 25 members of the group, who allegedly organised the strike, were booked under the Arunachal Pradesh Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

A draconian state law

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a central law to deal with “terrorist activities”, has been criticised by activists, legal experts and lawyers who say it has been used to criminalise dissent.

Itanagar-based advocate Ebo Mili said that the Arunachal Pradesh UAPA bears striking similarities to the central law. He said it follows a similar pattern in “providing the state government or district magistrate with unrestricted power to detain any person”.

Unlike the central law which is aimed at curbing terrorism, the Arunachal Pradesh UAPA focuses on criminal activities and people it defines as bootleggers, habitual drug offenders, property grabbers and others.

Mili pointed out that for such crimes, there are already sufficient laws to book people and that the Arunachal Pradesh UAPA gives the state government “unchecked powers” to detain anyone. “The provisions outlined in the APUAPA leave room for abuse and manipulation by the state government, enabling them to target individuals without proper safeguards or legal representation,” he said.

Detention, no legal recourse

The Arunachal Pradesh UAPA has no provision for arrests and allows for detention of people for 12 days, which can be extended up to six months, anywhere in the state without any legal support.

Every case of detention is presented before an advisory board chaired by a retired high court judge, who is recommended by the Chief Justice of India, and not less than two members appointed by the state government.

Section 11(4) of the act does not allow legal practitioners from appearing on behalf of a detained person “in any matter connected to the reference made to the advisory board”.

Referring to these provisions, Mili said they encourage the state government to use the law with impunity.

But Itanagar deputy commissioner Potom told Scroll that those detained in May were “habitual bandh callers” and had been booked for damaging properties in previous cases as well. “They need to be kept under detention to maintain law and order,” said Potom.

He defended the Arunachal Pradesh UAPA, saying it was needed to check unlawful activities such as the damage of public and private property. “Under the normal law and regular court, they get bail immediately – within a minute or hour,” said Potom. According to Potom, a detainee can be released on the condition that they will not disrupt law and order.

Potom said that a family member or a relative can request the district commissioner, home secretary or home minister directly for the release of a detained person, without involving a lawyer. The district commissioner will then give a representation to the state government. “The district magistrate will take a decision which will be reviewed by the home secretary,” he said.

To Gauhati High Court advocate Santanu Borthakur, the Arunachal Pradesh UAPA has all the features of a preventive detention law. “The provision in this law regarding detention without legal support is unconstitutional,” he said.

“States can always have their own law on preventive detention but it must conform to the requirement of Article 22 of the constitution,” he said.

Article 22 of the Constitution specifies protection against arrest and detention in certain cases. Article 22 (1) states that a detainee cannot be “denied the right to consult, and to be defended by, a legal practitioner of his choice”.

Suppressing dissent

On June 9, activist Payi Gyadi filed a public interest litigation in the Gauhati High Court seeking the repeal of the act on the grounds of it being “unconstitutional”. Gyadi told Scroll that the act should be abolished because it can be used to selectively target anyone whose opinion the government does not like.

Gyadi’s petition also alleged that the act is in violation of fundamental rights as it does not have a provision for the detainee to have their choice of legal representation. On June 8, the Itanagar permanent bench of the Gauhati High Court issued a notice to the state government seeking its response to Gyadi’s petition.

Journalist Rina, writing in the Arunachal Times in May, had touched upon the already repressive conditions in the state where the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act remains in operation in three districts. “Using regressive laws on citizens asking for genuine rights, and locking up citizens in the name of public order is against the very tenets of democracy,” wrote Rina.