Dissent is the safety valve of democracy; an essential ingredient of an open and liberal society. However, there has been a tendency among governments, irrespective of the party in power, to invoke draconian laws to suppress dissent. The Gauhati High Court’s recent ruling on the application of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, (UAPA) must come as an eye-opener for governments and investigation agencies which routinely misuse the provisions of a law that should be made applicable only for acts of terrorism with an intention to threaten India’s integrity and sovereignty. The Supreme Court too had condemned the practice last year. It is high time the executive was made accountable for the wrongful application of harsh laws against the critics of the government. The draconian provisions of the UAPA, National Security Act (NSA) and Public Safety Act (PSA) are being invoked to keep people incarcerated indefinitely. Be it West Bengal arresting a professor for a political cartoon or the Odisha government arresting a defence expert on flimsy grounds of hurting the sentiments of a community or Uttar Pradesh invoking the NSA in the alleged cow slaughter cases, several States have been using these laws to silence the detractors. According to the National Criminal Records Bureau, the number of ‘offences against the State’ jumped from 512 in 2014 to 7,569 in 2019. Ironically, the political parties decry such abuse while being in the opposition but have no qualms doing this when they come to power.
Under the current form of the UAPA, any individuals can be declared as terrorists and their properties seized even before their crime is proven in a court of law. Such provisions in the law make it prone to misuse and give the ruling parties an opportunity to target political opponents with impunity. Though the judiciary has largely stood up against any infringement of the fundamental rights of citizens, the massive backlog of pending cases are currently overburdening the courts, resulting in inordinate delays in getting the writ petitions against preventive detention orders heard. Moreover, the preventive detention laws are designed to be highly administratively steered and restrict the scope of judicial interference. This, at times, places unfettered and unchecked power in the hands of the executive without any liability, allowing the potential of grave misuse of such powers. The delay it usually takes to apply for, let alone get judicial relief, works to the advantage of the executive. Even in cases where such laws are found to have been misused, the ultimate purpose of keeping the person behind bars for a long period is served. Constitutional courts must be more vigilant and hear pleas against preventive detentions on top priority.