Activists in Kerala are living in fear of being arrested and incarcerated under the stringent provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act with human rights activists claiming that the Kerala police have invoked the Act in 62 cases during the last three years for acts as simple as putting up posters.
This includes four cases registered after the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government came to power in the state in May. The activists say the figure does not include cases linked to terrorism that the National Investigative Agency is investigating.
Activist Rajeesh Kollakkandi was the last person in the state to be charged under the Act for allegedly providing shelter in November to MN Ravunni, leader of Poratttam, a Left outfit that had called for a boycott of the Assembly elections held in May. Ravunni has also been booked under the draconian Act in two cases.
The Kerala police dropped charges against Kollakkandi on January 22 following the recommendations of a review panel headed by Director General of Police Loknath Behra that was formed after a directive from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Kollakkandi said that the police have been using the Act to trap activists whose views differed from that of mainstream political party workers.
“For the police, UAPA [Unlawful Activities Prevention Act] is a perfect tool to suppress dissent,” he said.
Ravunni, 66, was arrested on November 26 and charged with sedition and for supporting a terrorist organisation under the anti-terror Act. He was sent to the Central Prison in Kannur where he spent 40 days before the High Court granted him bail. In its ruling, the court observed that the distribution of pamphlets and pasting posters to urge people to boycott the election did not amount to sedition.
Activists Gowri and Chathu, also accused in the election boycott case, spent 180 days in jail after being charged under the same Act in May.
Porattam state convenor Shanto Lal was arrested in November minutes before he was to address reporters at the Kozhikode Press Club on the misuse of the Act. Lal has been also charged with sedition and is still in jail.
In December, many eyebrows were raised when Nadeer, a 27-year-old theatre activist and freelance journalist, was arrested when he visited his friend and novelist Kamal C Chavara at the Medical College Hospital in Kozhikode.
According to the police, Nadeer was charged under the Act for distributing pamphlets of a banned Maoist outfit in Aralam tribal colony in Kannur, and collecting food materials by threatening Adivasis at gunpoint. Nadeer was released a day after the police picked him up but the charges still stand.
Nadeer told this reporter that the case against him is totally fabricated. “I have never visited Aralam till date, and I don’t know how to use a gun,” he said.
“Police tortured me mentally after they took me into custody,” he said. “They questioned me till 2 am, and woke me up when I dozed off during interrogation. I feared for my life.”
Why such police action?
Activists say that the state police began to get tough with them after a number of agitations for Dalit rights, minority rights, and land rights were organised in Kerala.
“Most of these movements were organised by little known socio-political groups,” said Kollakkandy. “The state and police were worried when the agitations got fairly decent media attention and saw huge mass participation. So the government began to wield UAPA [Unlawful Activities Prevention Act] to threaten the activists.”
Nadeer had a different view on the issue.
“The massive condemnation of the alleged fake encounter killing of two Maoists might have triggered police action,” he said.
In the encounter he referred to, two Maoists were killed in the forests of Nilambur, close to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in November. It drew widespread condemnation.
Sebastian Paul, lawyer and former Member of Parliament from Ernakulam, said that it was high time that the Left Democratic Front government directed the state police not to target activists.
“I had taken part in many anti-UAPA [Unlawful Activities Prevention Act] protests across the state when the previous UDF [United Democratic Front] government victimised communist party workers and leaders,” said Paul. “So it is the duty of the Pinarayi Vijayan government to protect the people from UAPA.”
Paul was an independent member of Parliament from Ernakulam from 2004 to 2009. In December 2008, after the terror attacks in Mumbai, he abstained from voting when P Chidambaram, then the Union Home Minister, presented the amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. These amendments had borrowed provisions of previous anti-terror legislation that had been dropped after reports of widespread misuse by the police.
The arrests of rights activists under the watch of communists has put Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders in a spot. After Nadeer’s arrest, party veteran and former chief minister VS Achuthanandan as well as state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan severely criticised the police.
Balakrishnan said that the draconian Act should be used only against those who are involved in terrorist activities.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has also complained that the law is being misused.
“It should not be invoked unnecessarily,” said Vijayan earlier this month. “I have asked the DGP [Director General of Police] to re-examine such cases.”
The two top party leaders did not question the relevance of the law, but made a clear distinction between its use and abuse in the present circumstances.
The Act was first used in Kerala in 2007 against activist and journalist Govindan Kutty. That was the time Achuthanandan was chief minister and Balakrishnan was in charge of the home portfolio.
Last January, the party organised a series of protests after senior leader P Jayarajan was arrested and charged under the Act in connection with the murder of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader.
During the protests against the arrest, Vijayan blamed the Congress-led United Democratic Front government for misusing the law against Jayarajan. At the same time Vijayan supported the Act, saying that “such stringent laws are required to deal with terrorism as provisions in the Indian Penal Code are not sufficient to tackle terror-linked cases”.
KS Madhusudhanan, a leading lawyer in the Kerala High Court, said that the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s stand on the Act smacked of double standards.
“The party says it is against the misuse of UAPA [Unlawful Activities Prevention Act], but it never spoke against the law,” he said in an interview with a Malayalam television channel. “If the CPI (M)-led government is against the misuse of the law, it should answer why it opposed Nadeer’s bail plea.”
Besides forming a panel to review cases where the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act has been invoked, Director General of Police Behra also issued a circular instructing his subordinates to follow strict guidelines before invoking the stringent Act. The assurances, however, haven’t soothed the nerves of activists who remain apprehensive about police action.
Thushar Nirmal Sarathy, High Court lawyer and secretary of the Janadhipathya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam, a peoples’ movement for human rights, told this reporter that there was no transparency in the orders issued by the police chief.
“There is no clarity on the types of cases that would be re-examined,” he said.
The Janadhipathya Manushyavakasha Prasthanam has decided to strengthen its agitation against the draconian Act with the support of like-minded organisations and individuals.
Sarathy said the group would take out a march to the state Legislative Assembly in February. “We want a speedy and transparent review of UAPA [Unlawful Activities Prevention Act] cases,” he demanded. “Besides, the state government should take a political decision to withdraw all such cases.”