More than 100 retired bureaucrats on Monday demanded that the government replace the “draconian” Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act with a legislation that fights terrorism but also protects personal liberties.

The group of former officers, called the Constitutional Conduct Group, said there were many loopholes and flaws in the law, which made it susceptible to misuse by politicians and the police.

In an open letter to the citizens of India, they spoke about how the anti-terror law was used against activists and academicians in the Bhima Koregaon case. Fourteen of the people accused in the case remain in prison in Maharashtra, charged under the stringent law for allegedly conspiring to set off caste violence in a village near Pune in 2018.

Tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, one of the accused in the case, died in custody in July after being repeatedly denied bail despite his frail health.

The former bureaucrats also cited examples of student activists Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal and Asif Iqbal Tanha, who had been charged under UAPA and jailed in connection with a case related to the communal violence in North East Delhi in 2020.

The Delhi High Court had granted them bail in June this year. While passing the bail order, a division bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup J Bhambhani had criticised the government for trying to suppress dissent.

The Constitutional Conduct Group said that though the UAPA had been in existence in India for more than five decades, the “harsh amendments” that it underwent over the years made it “draconian, repressive and amenable to gross misuse”.

The amendment made to the law in July 2019 empowered the government to designate any individual as a “terrorist”. Before that, for conviction, the police had to establish that a person arrested in a UAPA case was member of a banned organisation.

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The former bureaucrats cited the government’s response in the Lok Sabha in March. Union minister Kishan Reddy had said that 1,948 people were arrested under the stringent Act in 2019 – a 72% increase compared to 1,128 arrests in 2015.

Despite an increase in the number of arrests, the convictions and prosecutions reduced steeply, the group said. “The Government of India has admitted that a mere 2.2% of the cases registered between 2016 and 2019 resulted in conviction,” they added.

The former officers concluded that a majority of the arrests under UAPA were made on “specious grounds” to create fear and suppress dissent.

They added that in its present form, UAPA was a threat to freedom and democracy in India.

The retired bureaucrats added that the Centre should consult legal experts and Parliament to enact a new legislation, which “while addressing concerns regarding terrorism, safeguards the right to liberty of those exercising their fundamental right of free expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution of India”.