The Desk

Can the State Declare an Individual as a Terrorist?

DESK BRIEF: Sections 35 and 36 of UAPA do not specify the criteria or procedures for arrest, giving absolute powers to the state.

The shocking plot twists and thrilling pursuit of “terrorists” in The Family Man made it one of the top 10 Indian Web Series of 2019. Some praise the show for attempting to tell the terrorists’ story by unpacking their motivations and lives. But it is criticised for stereotypical character framing: Season 1 narrates an ISIS plot in Kashmir, and Season 2 is about the LTTE in Tamil Nadu.

The stereotypical portrayals of villainous characters are merely art imitating life, some note. These claims refer to legislations such as the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978, The Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, and The National Security Act, 1980 which give the State powers of preventive detention of suspected militants. This inexhaustive list also includes the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA).
In 2019, the Parliament passed The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019. This amendment gives the Centre the power to notify individuals as terrorists. Previously, the State could only declare organisations as terrorists. The Amendment did not clarify who could be notified as terrorists, or the procedure for their detainment. Two petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging this amendment. They claim violation of fundamental rights to equality, free speech and life.

The lead petition, Sajal Awasthi v. Union of India, argues that the UAPA Amendment allows the Centre to circumvent due process. Sections 35 and 36 of UAPA do not delineate clear criteria or procedures for arrest. And this gives absolute and arbitrary powers to the Government to notify individuals as terrorists, on mere suspicion or belief.

In its lighter moments, The Family Man is a simple narrative about a man stuck between the role of a husband/father, and the responsibilities of an intelligence officer. However, for many, it is a commentary on how anti-terrorism laws interact with individual freedoms and liberties.

We are tracking the challenge to the UAPA Amendment here.

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