Omar Abdullah announced on Thursday that if elected to power in Jammu and Kashmir, his National Conference will repeal the Public Safety Act. Although the rival Peoples Democratic Party dismissed the proposal, there is little doubt that the law has no place in a democratic country.
The Public Safety Act enables the police to detain a person without charge for up to two years. The law was enacted in 1978 to tackle illegal timber trade but has been extensively by security agencies since militancy broke out in Kashmir in the late 1980s.
Its provisions are so broad as to invite misuse. Anything that the state deems detrimental to the “maintenance of public order”, for example, could be grounds for arrest. Since these charges do not have to be proved in a court of law, they are often painfully flimsy. Moreover, the law bars the detainees from hiring a lawyer and prevents the courts from interfering in the process unless the action has been initiated by a civil servant. It is widely used against minors. The detainees are often held far from home or even outside Kashmir, making it even harder for their families to seek some legal recourse.
The Act immunizes from prosecution any civil servant enforcing it even there is abuse of power.
The human rights organisation Amnesty International has argued the law violates fundamental “principles of legality”, while the constitutional expert AG Noorani has described it as “patently, manifestly and demonstrably unconstitutional”.
The Public Safety Act, along with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, presents a distorted version of Indian democracy to the Kashmiri people. For their political grievances are often sought to be smothered under these draconian laws. This strategy may help the Indian state maintain a façade of calm in the Valley for now, but in the long run it is a recipe for disaster.
The year 2018 was a bloody one for Kashmir, where 238 militants, 86 security personnel and 37 civilians were killed. In the same year, municipal elections witnessed an abysmal voter turnout of 4%.
What Kashmir needs today is a political solution that addresses the grievances of its people. Draconian laws like the Public Safety Act that shut out all voices will make things worse, not better.
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