Mohali: On Wednesday February 10, the Union home ministry presented data in the Rajya Sabha on cases filed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA. According to the Centre, 5,922 people were arrested under the UAPA between 2016 and 2019. Of which, merely 132 were convicted – which is roughly 2%.
In 2019 alone, the total number of persons arrested under UAPA was 1,948, according to the data presented by Union Minister of State for Home, G. Kishan Reddy.
Very often, human rights activists and lawyers have stated the fact that the low conviction rate under UAPA is an indication that people are and will be languishing in jail for a crime they may not even have committed. In many cases, even though the crime itself may not have occurred, a person is booked under the UAPA based on information received by an investigating agency or department.
Noted lawyer and activist, Sarabjit Singh Verka who works with the Punjab Human Rights Commission believes that 95% of the time, the UAPA has been misused by the government and other authorities.
“You remember TADA? The conviction rate of TADA was 2% too and that law has been highly misused as well,” Verka said.
In 2020, a similar pattern – of much fewer convictions than arrests – emerged in Punjab. In the months of June and July, a large number of UAPA cases were slapped on youths in the region – especially in Patiala and Amritsar.
At least 10 people were booked under the amended UAPA over alleged connections with Khalistani secessionists in 2020 alone. In one case, the accused was granted bail due to lack of evidence. In another, the accused was discharged from police custody, again, due to lack of evidence. In a third case, the police failed to provide a challan to the court within 90 days.
In most of these cases, police had filed a barrage of charges, yet failed to provide enough evidence to back them up.
On July 8, 2020, a 65-year-old Sikh man, Joginder Singh Gujjar, who had travelled to Punjab from Italy was arrested at his hometown in Kapurthala in Punjab.
As per FIR No 0049, filed at the Bholath Police Station in Kapurthala by Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Jatinderjit Singh, Gujjar was accused of being an “active member” of Khalistani group ‘Sikhs For Justice’ (SFJ).
Gujjar’s alleged association with this organisation was, according to DSP Singh’s FIR, brought to the Punjab police’s notice by “reliable sources”. In addition to being an active member of SFJ, Gujjar was also accused of attending SFJ’s conference in Geneva and financing the group.
But in court, the Punjab police failed to prove any of these charges. According to the court order, “not even a single document produced nor taken into possession,” showed that Joginder Singh Gujjar was an existing member of SFJ. The order notes – “No photograph has been produced in the Court to show [him] with Gurpatwant Singh Pannu [leader of SFJ]. So, mere allegations in FIR without any substance are not sufficient to put a person behind the bars.”
On July 31, the additional sessions judge Rajwinder Kaur granted bail to Gujjar.
Levelling charges on the basis of hearsay and then not being able to prove any charges “is a modus operandi of the Punjab police”, advocate Rajiv Puri, representing Gujjar in the matter, told The Wire.
“Rather than sending the person into custody, police must at least try to find a shred of evidence,” said Shaurya Puri, who is also an advocate, and has power of attorney in Joginder Gujjar’s case. “At least the police could have disclosed to us the ‘secret information’ that they received,” he added.
Gujjar’s bail order is the first bail granted under the amended UAPA in Punjab. The stir by Sukhpal Singh Khaira, an MLA from Bholath in Kapurthala, former leader of opposition in Punjab and the president of the year-old Punjab Ekta Party (PEP), worked in Gujjar’s favour.
In the months of June and July last year, Khaira had been actively campaigning against “the misuse” of UAPA in the state. He had attacked the ruling Congress party and the chief minister of Punjab over this. In addition, Khaira personally met with the families of the accused and held ‘lok sabhas’ with them.
At the same time, on various media platforms, Khaira also talked about the misuse of the UAPA in Punjab by the Congress party.
He accused senior leaders like Kapil Sibal of hypocrisy, as they were opposed to the misuse and overuse of the UAPA by the BJP but “had not said a word against their chief minister in Punjab.”
Recently, Khaira has also been vocal against the mass arrests done by the Delhi Police in the aftermath of the Republic Day violence and the farmers’ protest.
The stir grew to the point where Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh and the Director General of Police (DGP), Punjab, Dinkar Gupta made public comments assuring people that the law has not been misused.
DGP Dinkar Gupta, in an interview said that under his command no misuse of the UAPA was taking place in Punjab.
While the Punjab state machinery is convinced that the young are being radicalised in the state by ‘anti-India forces’ to disrupt the communal harmony in the region, even when the state is witnessing its biggest uprising against the farm laws and the Modi government at the Centre, advocate Jaspal Singh Manjhpur – who has compiled a list of all UAPA cases filed in Punjab in the last 11 years, and who was incarcerated under UAPA himself in 2009 – believes that the UAPA is nothing but a “political tool” which ruling parties use as per their convenience.
Speaking to The Wire, Manjhpur added that raising the issue of threats from Pakistan is a politically motivated tactic used to quell the farmers’ movement.
While Sukhpal Singh Khaira’s mobilisation against the arrest of Joginder Gujjar worked in his favour, not many people accused nationwide under the newly amended, more stringent UAPA have been able to secure bail.
In Punjab, besides Gujjar’s case, three men in their twenties were provided mandatory bail on October 30, 2020, because the police failed to produce a challan against them within 90 days. The charges levelled against the three men involve police seizing a cache of weapons.
Speaking to The Wire, human rights activist and advocate Sarabjit Singh Verka said that in the aforementioned case, while the police did seize an armoury of weapons, they showed no intention to investigate where those weapons came from.
Verka added that in Punjab, gangster group-led and drug-related crimes is rampant. “But the police doesn’t investigate these matters because the powerful class of Punjab is involved. If these are investigated fairly, I am sure more weapons will be seized,” Verka said.
In July, an 18-year-old resident of Amritsar was also held under the UAPA on suspicion of having links with the Khalistan Liberation Front (KLF). But after 16 days in custody, the Punjab police released him without booking him under any charge.
In an interview to BBC Punjabi, 18-year-old Jaspreet’s mother shows marks of torture on his body. In the same video, Jaspreet tells the reporter that he had only liked a video of a man abusing the Shiv Sena on Facebook and had never heard of the KLF before.
In the same month last year, the case of a Dalit man, Lovepreet Singh, who was also a Sikh priest, made news.
The 23-year-old was summoned by the NIA for questioning regarding ‘seditious’, pro-Khalistan writings by him on a wall. After the questioning, he allegedly died by suicide inside a room he had rented at the Amb Sahib Gurudwara in Mohali.
His suicide sparked outrage in the region. Members of Singh’s family alleged that he was tortured mentally and physically by the NIA which led him to suicide. Along with the family, MLA Khaira also demanded an independent probe into the matter.
‘Wearing t-shirt not a crime’
In the same month, another young man, also named Lovepreet Singh was arrested under the UAPA, first by the Delhi Police in Samana, near Patiala. Another FIR was filed against the 18-year-old in Punjab later.
Lovepreet Singh’s brother, Satnam Singh, told The Wire that his brother was part of the Darbar Sahib’s Akal Takht Committee and had visited Delhi during the Shaheen Bagh protests for ‘langar sewa’ at the protest site.
Satnam said that his brother wore a t-shirt of the militant Sikh leader and terror-accused Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Delhi, took pictures with anti-CAA protesters and uploaded it on his Facebook account. He believes that this could have led the police to arrest him.
The FIR filed in Punjab mentions that the 18-year-old, along with two other men, is a member of the Khalistan Liberation Front (KLF) and was planning to execute terrorist activities in the region. The one filed in New Delhi says that he, along with another man, was in possession of weapons that they were going to use to undertake terrorist activities.
The lawyer representing Lovepreet in Punjab, Karunesh Verma, told The Wire that while the Delhi Police has allegedly recovered some weapons, the recovery took place after Lovepreet’s confession was obtained in a disclosure statement.
“The credibility of the recovery is lost as sometimes victims are made to sign such statements,” Verma said.
Verma is hopeful of a positive result. He said that by wearing a Bhindranwale t-shirt, Lovepreet has not committed any crime. “Incriminating a young, impressionable boy, and torturing him may make a criminal out of him,” he added.
According to Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, the rise in police action with regard to the UAPA last year can be linked to ‘Referendum 2020’ – a Khalistani secessionist campaign being run abroad by the now banned group, Sikhs For Justice (SFJ).
The SFJ has also been cited by the NIA for conducting investigations during the ongoing farmers’ protest. The NIA summoned at least 40 people, directly or indirectly associated with the ongoing farmers’ agitation last month to appear for questioning in connection with a case filed against the banned SFJ.
But according to Manjhpur no one takes the leader behind the secessionist campaign, Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, seriously. He “speaks a lot,” Manjhpur told The Wire but in no way does the existence of SFJ in the US mean that people in Punjab believe him.
“Whatever he is doing there, we must understand the extent of its impact here,” he said.
According to members of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), a radical group which splintered from the main SAD in 1994, SFJ’s Referendum 2020 was a bogus movement.
SAD(A) is a party which was founded on the premise of advocating for Khalistan or a separate Sikh homeland democratically. They contest elections every year and had done well in 1989 when they won six parliamentary seats in Punjab. Since then, however, the party has failed to capture the imagination of the masses in Punjab.
“How did he plan to execute the referendum anyway? That man has no base in Punjab,” a member of the SAD (A) told The Wire.
Advocate Manjhpur has kept a record of UAPA cases filed against people in Punjab in the last 11 years. According to those records, only three UAPA cases saw conviction. Manjhpur’s records and the data presented by the home ministry in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday bring home the same point – the anti-terror law is ripe for misuse.