The Big Story: Unlawful laws

It has been a year since Chandrashekhar Azad was first arrested. The chief of the Bhim Army, an organisation committed to the upliftment of the Dalit community in Western Uttar Pradesh, was arrested on accusations of having fomented violence in Saharanpur in May 2017. That month saw an attack by upper castes on Dalit homes, which would later lead to more clashes and the deaths of two people. UP Police eventually arrested Azad, among others, and accused him of being responsible for the violence.

In November 2017, when Azad’s arrest came up before the Allahabad High Court, the judges called the charges “politically motivated” and granted bail to the Bhim Army head. Yet, despite this clear decision from the High Court, the Uttar Pradesh government promptly slapped the draconian National Security Act on Azad. No one from the upper-caste community accused in the violence has been arrested under the NSA.

The NSA allows the state to keep an accused in preventive detention for up to a year, and following that, the freedom to issue another order of preventive detention. The only check on this process is the permission to someone who has been detained under National Security Act to make a representation before an Advisory Board of three high court judges, or people qualified to be high court judges, after three months in detention.

Uttar Pradesh’s use of the National Security Act against Azad, even though the High Court made it clear that the charges against him were politically motivated, is a perfect example of why a law like this should not be on the books in the first place. Why is it okay for a government to keep someone behind bars, without a chargesheet or a trial, when even High Court judges have criticised his arrest?

A similar criticism can be levelled at the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which was invoked this week to secure the arrests of a number of activists whom the Maharashtra Police have accused of being “top urban Maoist operatives.” These activists were arrest for allegedly being associated with a Dalit event on December 31, 2017 to commemorate the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, which led to clashes and the death of one person. As with the Sahranpur clashes, the violence here was allegedly begun by men waving saffron flags, and two of the accused are Hindutva right-wing activists: Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide. Yet, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has not been invoked against either, and indeed, only one has been arrested.

Like the National Security Act, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act gives broad powers to the police to arrest who it wishes, allows for detention without charges for months, and puts a heavy burden of proof on the accused rather than the state. Its definition of terrorism is vague enough to encompass a wide range of non-violent political activity, which allows police to use it against anyone who is dissenting.

In both of these case, it is also hard not to observe the caste dynamics: In Uttar Pradesh, only the chief of the Dalit group has been slapped with a case under the National Security Act and kept behind bars until now, with none of the upper-caste men accused of violence having to face the same fate. In Maharashtra, those associated with the Dalit cause have been jailed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, but one of the Hindutva activists who is accused has not even been arrested.

Neither of these laws, as they currently stand, deserve to be on the books in a democratic state and even if they are not repealed immediately, it is up to the judiciary to impose checks and balances in a manner that prevents the government from simply jailing whoever is critical of it.

The Big Scroll:


  1. “The opposition parties of today are doing vis-à-vis BJP the same thing those of yesterday have done against Congress – and for the same reasons: They fear the BJP’s hegemony and claim that democracy is in danger,” writes Christophe Jaffrelot in the Indian Express.
  2. India has adequate freshwater, yet bad policy and management has led to water crises all over the country, and an urgent need to find a solution, says a leader in Mint.
  3. It would be worthwhile developing a policy that allows women the flexibility to take time off for periods should they need to while also providing them with options like working from home. Flexibility is important because unlike family leave policies which tend to be based on more universal experiences, women’s experience of menstruation varies widely,” writes Urvashi Prasad in the Hindu Businessline.
  4. “The BJP has done two things wrong: one was to treat alliance partners at the Centre as irrelevant non-entities who needed no mollycoddling since it already had a majority on its own; and two, it repeatedly ignored them on key policy issues except when it needed their support in Parliament,” writes R Jagannathan in Swarajya.
  5. “The Modi-Shah outreach to old NDA allies will not be easy, not for want of trying but because it’s next to impossible to balance competing national and regional interests without paying a heavy price like the Congress has done,” says Arati Jerath in the Tribune.


Don’t miss

Nandini Ramnath reviews Kaala, a Rajinikanth movie that is “loaded with so much political meaning and revolutionary fervour that it is almost possible to miss the absence of a convincing plot.”

Ranjith’s 166-minute movie is part semiotics lesson about the Rajinikanth mythos and part sermon on housing rights for the urban poor. Rajinikanth’s evolution from villain to hero to superstar has made it challenging, if not impossible, for filmmakers to look beyond his demigod status and cast him as a mere mortal with the same fears and dreams as his fans. Director Shankar took the next best option in Enthiran (2010): Rajinikanth played a robot whose downfall began when he tried to snap out of his heavily programmed existence.

Ranjith has his personal take on the Rajinikanth aura, and it comes with more annotations and footnotes than a culture studies paper. In Kabali (2016), his first collaboration with Rajinikanth, Ranjith used the star to tell an alternative history of Dalit politics in Tamil Nadu and the migration of Tamilians to Malaysia. In Kaala, Ranjith brings the screen god down to earth – and not just any in old corner.