Under UAPA, process itself becomes punishment, writes activist Gautam Navlakha

Image Courtesy: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

As the country remembers Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar on the occasion of his birth anniversary, civil rights activists Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, who were booked under the draconian UAPA in relation to the Bhima Koregaon violence in 2018, are set to surrender to the police. The irony that this is happening on the anniversary of Ambedkar, who was one of the strongest legatee of the democratic traditions of the country, has been highlighted by many.

On March 16, the Supreme Court rejected the anticipatory bail applications of the activists and ordered them to surrender by April 6, which was extended for a week on April 8 as the country faced an unprecedented lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Navlakha, who is going to surrender before the NIA headquarters in Delhi, writes, “Under this double whammy (of the provisions under UAPA), jail becomes the norm, and bail an exception. In this Kafkaesque domain, process itself becomes punishment.”

The letter is produced below.

As I prepare to leave to surrender before the NIA headquarters in Delhi I am glad that Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Indira Banerjee gave me another week of freedom when they passed the order on April 8, 2020. A week of freedom means a lot in my condition, even in the age of lockdown. Their order resolved the predicament I encountered in complying with the March 16th order of the apex court, which obliged me to surrender by April 6th before the NIA, Mumbai. The lockdown that followed prevented me from travelling. Also there was no direction from NIA (Mumbai) regarding what I should do under the circumstances. I know now that I have to surrender myself to the NIA Head quarters in Delhi. 

The Indian Prime Minister has likened the challenge posed by Covid19 pandemic to a state of “national emergency”. Meanwhile the apex court itself recently intervened in the matter of jail conditions, and issued guidelines to the authorities regarding the overcrowding of jail inmates and the threat posed to the prisoners and detenues, jail staff and other personnel assigned jail duties. This concern remains although no case of Covid19 infection has come from any jail so far, somewhat reassuring for me. However, I am affected by the fear that my near and dear ones harbour about my captivity amidst Covid19. I cannot help but feel disappointed that the terse order of the Supreme Court on 8th April had no reference to the Covid19 pandemic, which has overtaken the world, including all of us in India. 

However, I can now begin to face the actual legal process, which accompanies cases where provisions of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act are invoked. Such Acts turn the normal jurisprudence upside down. No longer is it the axiom that ‘a person is innocent unless proven guilty’. In fact, under such Acts, ‘an accused is guilty unless proven innocent’. 

Draconian provisions of UAPA are not accompanied by stricter procedures regarding evidence, especially electronic, considering the stringent punishment provided for under the Act; the procedures, which otherwise provide tighter rules regarding evidence, are instead made elastic. Under this double whammy, jail becomes the norm, and bail an exception. In this Kafkaesque domain, process itself becomes punishment. 

My hope rests on a speedy and fair trial for myself and all my fellow co-accused. This alone will enable me to clear my name, and walk free, having also used the time in jail to rid myself of acquired habits. Until then, “Won’t you help to sing These songs of freedom ‘Cause all I ever have Redemption songs Redemption songs. These songs of Freedom……” (Bob Marley) 

Gautam Navlakha 14th April 2020, New Delhi.

First published in NewsClick.