Just 6 months before the Montford Reforms were to be put into effect, two bills were introduced in the Imperial Legislative Council. One of them was dropped, but the other, an extension to the Defence of India Regulations Act 1915, was passed in March 1919. It was officially called the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act but popularly known as the Rowlatt Act.
It was based on the recommendations made in the previous year to the Imperial Legislative Council by the Rowlatt Commission, headed by the British judge, Sir Sidney Rowlatt, to investigate the “seditious conspiracy” of the Indian people. The act allowed political activists to be tried without juries or even imprisoned without trial.
It allowed the arrest of Indians without a warrant on the mere suspicion of “treason”. Such suspects could be tried in secrecy without recourse to legal help. A special cell consisting of three high court judges was to try such suspects and there was no court of appeal above that panel.
This panel could even accept evidence not acceptable under the Indian Evidence Act. The writ of habeas corpus, the basis of civil liberty, was sought to be suspended.
The object of the government was to replace the repressive provisions of the wartime Defence of India Act (1915) with a permanent law. So the wartime restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly were re-imposed in India.
There was strict control over the press and the government was armed with a variety of powers to deal with anything the authorities chose to consider as terrorism or revolutionary tactics.
The UAPA was introduced as legislation to set out reasonable restrictions on the freedoms under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. Its main objective is to make powers available for dealing with activities directed against the integrity and sovereignty of India.
The British government in India passed the Rowlatt Act to give powers to the police to arrest any person without any reason or charges. The purpose of the act was to curb the growing nationalist upsurge in the country.
Similarly, In July 2019, the ambit of UAPA was further expanded. It was amended, allowing the government to designate an individual as a terrorist without trial. Earlier it was allowed only in the case of organisations.
The arrest of several activists in recent times have pointed towards possible misuse of the draconian UAPA law. National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data shows that around 67% of the cases registered under UAPA ended in acquittal or discharge.
The definition of unlawful activities includes terms that are vague and broad. For instance, questioning the territorial integrity of India and activities to cause “disaffection against India” are unlawful activities.
There is no definition of membership in the UAPA, making it susceptible to misuse. The Supreme Court in 2011 had ruled that mere membership of a banned organisation would not make a person a criminal. However, under UAPA, if one is found to be a member of banned organisations, they could be imprisoned for life.
Some of the provisions, such as extended detention periods, no anticipatory bail, no bail if the case seems prima facie true, etc., have been termed as draconian. In addition, it contains no sunset clause and provisions for mandatory periodic review, which makes the UAPA a permanent statute.
The misuse of UAPA does not mean there is no need for such stringent laws. On the contrary, the UAPA has been enacted to deal with certain situations and it is the duty of the government that these laws be used for their rightful purposes.
For this, there is an urgent need for some sort of checks and balances that will safeguard the interest of any innocent accused while still enforcing the spirit behind this act. A simple yet effective safeguard might be a periodical review of the Act and sunset clauses.
Re-defining terrorism with a reduced ambit and fixing the accountability in case of misuse will be very useful.