July 12, 2021 4:09:44 am
NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD Randeep Singh was in the middle of a Gurmat Sangeet course in Ludhiana — specialising in the musical instrument ‘dilruba’ — when he was picked up by police in May 2017 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, following a case registered at Phase I police station, Mohali.
Four years later, three-and-a-half of which he spent in prison, Randeep was finally granted bail on December 23 last year.
Randeep (now 24), is struggling to make ends meet. He has finally managed to get a job reciting kirtan (religious discourse) in a Jalandhar gurdwara that pays him Rs 8,000 per month, after being turned away by several potential employers, all of whom said they couldn’t hire him as his name had figured in a UAPA case.
Randeep is among 370 men who have been booked under UAPA since 2009 in Punjab, as per data compiled last year by a Ludhiana-based lawyer, Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, who is the defense counsel in a large number of such cases.
The recent death of Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist Stan Swamy in judicial custody nine months after his arrest in a UAPA case has put the spotlight on such cases in the country.
According to a reply by the Ministry of Home Affairs in Lok Sabha in March, the number of UAPA cases and persons arrested registered a sharp increase during the regime of the incumbent Congress government in Punjab, as compared to the previous regime led by Akali Dal. As per the reply, in 2015 and 2016, a total of four UAPA cases were registered and seven people arrested. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, the total number of cases registered under UAPA in Punjab increased to 18, in which at least 101 people were arrested.
As per a list compiled by Manjhpur last year, there were at least 94 cases registered under the UAPA since 2009, in which 370 people were arrested. Out of these, there were acquittals in at least 47 cases. A similar number of cases were pending in court. From 2009 to 2016, as per data compiled by Manjhpur, when the Akali Dal-led government was at the helm of affairs in Punjab, the accused in 41 out of 47 cases were acquitted/discharged and six cases were pending. And from 2017, out of 47 cases, the accused in six cases were acquitted/discharged and 41 cases were pending.
Manjhpur last week told The Indian Express that since he finished compiling the list last year, at least 20 more cases under UAPA were registered in Punjab.
As per the reply on March 9 by the Ministry of Home Affairs to an unstarred question by Congress MP in Lok Sabha, Anto Antony, from Pathanamthitta in Kerala, at least 897 UAPA cases have been registered and 1,128 people arrested across the country in 2015, a year after the BJP formed government at the Centre.
In 2019, as per the reply, which was based on National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, 1,226 UAPA cases were registered and 1,948 people were arrested, an increase of 36.6 per cent (in number of cases) and 72.6 per cent (in number of arrests).
As per NCRB data for 2019, 1,948 people were arrested under UAPA across the country and 34 were convicted. At least 92 accused booked under UAPA were acquitted and 16 discharged in 2019.
As far as Punjab is concerned, a perusal of the reply showed that two cases each were registered under UAPA in 2015 (two persons arrested) and 2016 (five persons arrested). In March 2017, the Congress formed government in the state, putting an end to the 10-year rule of the Akali Dal regime. As per the reply, seven cases under UAPA were registered in 2017 and 44 people arrested, six cases were registered in 2018 and 27 people arrested and three cases were registered in 2019 and 30 people arrested.
The anti-terrorism law is under fire for being alleged used as a “political tool”.
“The UAPA is primarily aimed at keeping people in jail for a long time. Records show that it is a useless law that is used as a political tool. Already existing laws are sufficient to deal with any crime. The draconian law of UAPA should be rolled back. It is a copy-paste version of laws like TADA (Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) — laws under which a person is declared as a terrorist even without a trial. A world-renowned personality like Stan Swamy died for want of treatment after being booked under UAPA. Was any bomb or incriminating evidence ever recovered from Swamy?” asked Manjhpur, adding that similarly, a man named as an accused in a UAPA case in Tarn Taran district had been denied bail for around two years, despite being “diabetic and having a heart ailment and tuberculosis”.
Manjhpur said that out of all UAPA cases in Punjab, there were convictions in only three by trial courts, with the accused being later acquitted by Punjab and Haryana High Court in two, and appeal still pending in one case.
After being booked under the anti-terror law, Randeep, a resident of Nanowal Jindar village in Gurdaspur district in Punjab, spent more than three and a half years in jail before he was granted bail by Punjab and Haryana High Court on December 23 last year in May 2017.
“The case changed the course of my life. I was learning dilruba, one of the rarest musical instruments, when I was picked by cops in civil clothes from Dayanand Medical College (DMC), Ludhiana, on May 28. The next day, police showed me as arrested in a UAPA case. I did not know any of the other accused named in the case. I was falsely implicated. I was among the Sikh youths who were then seeking justice in cases of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib in 2015 and took part in camps that tried to wean away youths from drugs and motivate them to follow the gurbani,” Randeep told The Indian Express on phone. He added that his “family conditions” forced him to search for a job, but every probable employer denied employing him when he disclosed about the UAPA case against him.
“Some days ago, I managed to get a job in a gurdwara in Jalandhar. I did not tell them about the UAPA case, as I badly needed the job,” said Randeep, who has again resumed training in dilruba — online this time — from a different trainer, as the previous institution where he enrolled did nothing to defend him, including “getting CCTV footage which could have showed he was picked up by police from DMC Ludhiana”.
Randeep, whose father is a truck driver, said, “My batchmates have completed the course and are already well-settled, but I had to start afresh.”
Satnam Singh, who was among those named in the Phase I police station FIR under UAPA charges in which Randeep got bail, said police claimed to have arrested the accused in [Punjab RSS chief Brigadier Jagdish] Gagneja (retd) murder case, but could not arrest the perpetrators of desecration of Guru Granth Sahib. “Was Gagneja more important than Guru Granth Sahib?” asked 27-year-old Satnam, who also got bail in the case in January.
“Police showed recovery of weapons from us. When in custody, they can even show that a cannon has been recovered from us,” said Satnam.
Randeep and Satnam said all the accused in the case, around a dozen in number, including a woman, had got bail. A juvenile was also named as an accused in the case. One person had died during the trial.
In October last year, an Amritsar court absolved seven accused of UAPA charges in a terror case. Gurpreet Singh, 30, a resident of Jeonwala in Faridkot district, was one of the suspects who had been set free by the court in the case. Gurpreet now rues that he was made to spend more than three years in jail for a crime that he didn’t commit.
“My father retired as a junior engineer with Punjab Electricity department. One of my uncles retired as a subedar from the Army and is currently working under Guardian of Governance project – an initiative by the Capt Amarinder Singh government where retired army men have been hired in villages to monitor development activities. My other two uncles are into farming. We did no anti-national activity.
Despite this, I was implicated in the case. I was accused of receiving funds from abroad, which I used for welfare activities and I have all the proofs. While we were absolved of UAPA charges, the court convicted us under the Arms Act. “I was awarded three years in jail and a fine of Rs 10000 under the Arms Act. I remained in jail for 40 months. I paid the fine imposed on me. What about the extra months I spent in jail? There was no compensation for that,” said Gurpreet.
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