It is perhaps an anachronism that the Indian Penal Code of 1860 still retains “criminal conspiracy” as an offence. Criminal conspiracy, defined as two or more people agreeing to do an illegal act, was made a penal crime in 1913. If the conspiracy is to commit a crime punishable with death or life imprisonment, the conspirator can be sentenced to two years in prison or more.

The British Raj used this provision widely to crush dissent. They would often register a case of criminal conspiracy in one corner of the country and charge people from all over. It was immaterial whether there was any basis for filing such a case, the purpose usually was to launch a witch-hunt. The Kanpur Conspiracy Case of 1923 and the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929, for example, were meant to suppress the nascent Communist Party of India.

Many countries have stricken such offences off their statute books and for good reason: they are prone to misuse. This week’s nationwide crackdown on human rights activists in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence is a reminder why India needs to follow suit.

Many people say the crackdown is reminiscent of the Emergency; some even describe it as an undeclared emergency. During the Emergency, at least the Maoist groups were banned before their alleged members were arrested. Today, it is enough to merely cry conspiracy to put people behind bars. The blanket authority given to police to arrest anyone from a social activist to a scholar smacks of vindictiveness, to justify which sensational claims about plots to murder the prime minister are bandied about.

In the wake of the Emergency, when the entire opposition united to take on Indira Gandhi, she alleged that her rivals were after her blood. Today, as talk grows of the formation of a grand opposition alliance ahead of next year’s election, invoking such conspiracy theories has become necessary for the ruling dispensation to isolate ideological dissent from the political scene. It’s a project to create a fear psychosis that has previously been employed by regional satraps.

Old ploy

In 1972, M Karunanidhi, then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, went to receive an honorary doctorate from Annamalai University. When students there started protesting against him, they were lathicharged by the police and a second-year student named Udayakumar was killed. This led to an agitation, forcing the government to set up an inquiry commission.

Deposing before the commission, police officers alleged there had been an attempt to murder the chief minister which their action had thwarted. They claimed to have recovered a shell that had been planted to blow up a bridge on the Kudamurutti river that the chief minister’s convoy was scheduled to take. As to who was behind it, they accused the people who were “Marxists by day and Naxalites by night”. The police also made Udayakumar’s father falsely depose that his son had been involved with extremist groups and had gone underground. Fortunately, the commission did not accept this conspiracy theory.

The shell turned out to be a grenade brought home as a souvenir by an Army man who had accidentally thrown it out with household garbage.

Still, the “conspiracy to kill the chief minister” became a handy tool for Karunanidhi’s government to subdue the opposition. The ploy did not really work, though. Karunanidhi was easily Tamil Nadu’s tallest leader when he took over as chief minister in 1972, but his popularity had waned within three years and his government was eventually dismissed during the Emergency on corruption charges. It took him years to regain his political authority, and then too it was never quite the same.

Just like the British never intended to establish the Kanpur and Meerut conspiracies and only employed them as pretexts to crush an emerging opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party government is not interested in proving the allegations against these activists. But in the process, innocent people will suffer.

Justice K Chandru is a retired judge of the Madras High Court.