A week after Parliament passed the National Investigation Agency (Amendment) Bill, the Lok Sabha gave its nod to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment (UAPA), Bill 2019. The UAPA Act currently allows the government to designate any organisation as “terrorist” if it believes that it is involved in terrorism. The amendments passed by the Lok Sabha last week seek to empower the Centre to designate individuals as terrorists. During the debate in the Lok Sabha, Home Minister Amit Shah deployed the national security argument. Banned outfits often change their names. “So, there’s a need for a provision to declare an individual as a terrorist,” he said. There can be little quarrel over the need to bolster national security. But there must be a distinction between an individual and an organisation, and it must be kept in mind that the Constitution guarantees the former the right to life and liberty.
The proposed amendments are also troubling in light of the changes made to the NIA law. The amended NIA law gives the agency the power to “investigate terror crimes relating to Indians and interests of India”. But the amendments do not define “interests of India”, just as the proposed amendments to the UAPA do not spell out who is a terrorist. They merely say that the Centre may designate a person or an outfit “as terrorist if it (he/she) commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for terrorism, promote terrorism, or is otherwise involved in terrorism”. The vagueness at the heart of that formulation means that the Centre and investigative agencies have wide discretionary powers to decide what constitutes a “terrorist offence”. This is a recipe for misuse by governments which, arguably, may view critical voices as inimical to the “interests of India”. During the debate on the UAPA amendments in the Lok Sabha, Home Minister Shah held out the assurance that the new provision will not be misused. But his references to “Urban Maoists” during the debate have raised fears that the government could use its power to tag a person as a “terrorist” to stifle dissent or to target people from specific communities.
The new NIA law gives the agency powers to investigate crimes related to human trafficking, offences related to counterfeit currency, manufacture or sale of prohibited arms, cyber-terrorism and offences under the Explosive Substances Act. These functions were hitherto performed by the police of the state concerned. The policing powers of states will be further curtailed if the amendments to the UAPA act are approved. For example, the provision to empower the head of the NIA to approve the forfeiture of properties of “those involved in terrorist activities” undermines the role of the Director General of Police in the states. In the Lok Sabha, the government used the weight of its numbers to ride roughshod over such concerns. But it would do well to rethink the issues pertaining to the rights of life and liberty, and to federalism, when the amendments to the UAPA come up for debate in the Rajya Sabha.
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