UAPA against lawyers is vindictive action to silence truth: PUCL

Lawyers' fact finding team in Tripura. | Photo: LiveLaw

People’s Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL) said fact-finding team neither abetted nor provoked the violence and the lodging of the FIR by the police is nothing but a case of abuse of powers.

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NEW DELHI – A national human rights organization People’s Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL) has condemned the registration of FIR by Tripura Police under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and other draconian provisions of the IPC against a team of advocates from Delhi, the “Lawyers for Democracy”, for conducting a fact-finding enquiry into communal violence incidents in Tripura in mid to end October.

In a statement, PUCL said that “it is clear that the police have invoked the draconian provisions of UAPA law only because of the findings of the fact-finding team that the large scale violence which destroyed numerous homes, shops, mosques and other properties of Muslims in many towns in Tripura was the result of orchestrated violence unleashed by Hindu majoritarian groups like the VHP and HJM, against minority Muslims with the tacit connivance and conscious abdication of their duties by the Tripura police.”

What is most shocking, PUCL said, is that “the West Agartala Police Station has sent a notice u/s 41 A of the Criminal Procedure Code to Advocates Mukesh, National Co-Convener, AILAJ and member of PUCL Delhi and Advocate Ansar Indori of the National Confederation of Human Rights Organizations (NCHRO) imputing that it was their social media posts, statements and Report which were responsible for “promoting enmity between religious groups as well as provoking people of different religious communities to commit a breach of peace”.”

“The absurdity of the police accusation and the malice underlying the police case becomes evident by the fact that the fact-finding team of the Delhi Advocates visited Tripura on 29 and 30 October, after the outbreak of communal violence which occurred between 12 to 26 October 2021,” PUCL said.

Stating that the fact-finding team neither abetted nor provoked the violence, “so the lodging of the FIR by the police is nothing but a case of abuse of powers.”

PUCL said that what is most disturbing is that “the Tripura police are seeking to criminalize what is not only a constitutional freedom but also a constitutional and democratic duty of every citizen, to seek the truth about incidents of communal violence to fix accountability and transparency from the political and bureaucratic executive.”

In this case, the Tripura police are seeking to criminalize a fact-finding exercise as the role of the police and state administration have been exposed, PUCL said.

What triggered the FIR against the advocates?
Asking what is the crime that the Tripura Police is ostensibly investigating?, PUCL said, “What advocates Mukesh and Ansar Indori, as well as advocates Ehtesham Hashmi and Amit Srivastav did, is to take seriously the Fundamental duty under Art 51A(h) – to ‘promote “harmony and the spirit of brotherhood’ as well as the duty to ‘cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom’.”

PUCL said that the team of advocates, disturbed by the violence in the state, went to Tripura to understand the root cause of the violence “with a constitutional motivation for the search for truth and justice.”

The team of advocates produced a report titled, ‘Humanity under attack in Tripura’ which documents the attacks on Muslim establishments and the vandalization of mosques and the impact of the violence in creating insecurity in the minority population which took place in several districts between 12 to 26 October 2021.

The report points to the role of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other right-wing Hindutva based groups in instigating the violence and the complicity of the state in allowing that to happen.

Commenting on the report, PUCL said that the “findings in the report, as well as the wide publicity the report got in the media, were not to the liking of the Tripura government as it was quite clearly pointing to the role of majoritarian extremist organizations in the violence as well as the complicity of the BJP-ruled state in the violence.”

PUCL said that what has prompted the Tripura Police to issue the notice is “undoubtedly a desire to control the narrative on the violence.”

PUCL said that the state seeks to send out a message that fact-finding is a risky endeavour especially if you are challenging the narrative of the current dispensation. “Such wanton prosecution is also meant to send a chilling message to others from joining such fact-finding exercises in the future, especially in BJP ruled states,” it said.

‘UAPA against advocates is vindictive action to silence truth’
PUCL said that the action by the Tripura police against the Delhi lawyers is “a brazen, undisguised attempt to silence truth and to terrify and frighten future fact-finding exercises.”

Pertinently, on October 29 the CJ’s Bench of the Tripura High Court took suo moto cognizance of incidents of violence that occurred on October 26, in North Tripura district, Unakoti District and Sipahijala Districts. The High Court order notes that the Advocate General of Tripura had submitted a note stating that a Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally of over 3500 people had been organized in Panisagar of North Tripura district to protest against attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh during the Puja period. During the rally clashes occurred in which 3 shops were burnt down, 3 houses damaged and mosques damaged. The report of the Advocate General lists the various FIRs registered in several districts where communal violence had taken place.

The Tripura High Court while deprecating the spread of morphed and “false, fictitious or fabricated news articles or footages” being spread in social media also pointed out that “The media has every right, as part of their activities, to publish the truth. It should not be allowed to spread untruth and spread communal passion”.

Similarly, on November 2, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also took on file a complaint filed by the TMC against the communal violence in Tripura and asked the Chief Secretary and the DGP of Tripura to file a status report before the NHRC in 4 weeks.

“It is very clear that from mid-October onwards as reports started getting published about attacks during Durga puja on Hindus in Bangladesh, tension started building up in many parts of Tripura, especially in parts where former Bangladesh-origin Hindus had settled in,” PUCL said, adding that, “Several media reports point out that before the incidents of October 26, the VHP, Hindu Jagran Manch and their affiliated organizations had organized numerous rallies and gatherings where the mood was markedly aggressive and demands made for retaliation against Muslims in Tripura. For example, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindutva groups wanted to take processions in the Futamati, Maharani and Hirapur area of the Gomati district, which is minority-dominated.”

When police refused permission, stone pelting occurred injuring policemen and others, PUCL said.

Similarly, on Thursday, October 21, a 10,000 strong rally of VHP was organized in Dharmanagar in North Tripura District while another rally was organized in the Agartala of West Tripura district by 13 Hindutva related organizations.

PUCL said that it is quite clear that “the atmosphere in Tripura from mid-October was surcharged with the feeling of communal hostilities against the minorities,” saying this resulted in a series of attacks against Muslim owned properties. “Although the district police in some districts had taken pre-emptive action in several places to curb the outbreak of violence, there were allegations that the state police had not effectively taken action in time and had by acts of omission and commission aided the right-wing Hindutva based majoritarian groups to attack with impunity minority Muslim houses, properties and religious places of worship,” it said.

This being the situation in Tripura, PUCL said, the fact-finding exercise undertaken by the 4-member team of Advocates was to visit the affected areas and gain a first-hand understanding of how events unfolded, by talking to the victims and various parties involved. “Their report indicated that they had spoken to the police officials also. It is for this act of truth-finding that the advocates are being penalized under UAPA,” it said.

Pattern to reprisals
Over the last few years, PUCL said that “the Indian government has assiduously gone after all independent voices which seek to challenge its narrative and question its policies.”

Journalists too have been targets of attack under this regime, they said.

“A study by the Free Speech Collective has documented that there have been 198 serious attacks on journalists documented in the period between 2014 and 2019, including 36 in 2019 alone,” PUCL maintained.

PUCL said that the notice under UAPA to Mukesh and Indori escalates the attack to advocates now.

“Advocates perform a vital role in a democracy. Beyond the important function of legal representation, advocates have historically played the role of public-spirited individuals in the quest for justice. Advocates have played a seminal role in India’s freedom struggle too,” PUCL said.

Advocates Mukesh, Indori and others should not be criminalized for undertaking the fact-finding but should rather be appreciated for undertaking what after all is the fundamental duty of the Indian citizen, PUCL said.

“We applaud Mukesh, Indori and his teammates for fearlessly performing their fundamental duty of honouring the ideals of the freedom struggle and demand that the Tripura police withdraw the notice and drop the prosecution with immediate effect,” PUCL said.

Stating that the legal basis to the notice is untenable as the fact-finding exercise did not provoke any violence even as per the notice of the police and there is no reason to consider it an unlawful activity, it said, adding, “They went to study and document the violence that had already occurred.”

“By considering the legitimate freedom of speech and expression in both its offline and online avatars as unlawful activity, the Tripura police are overstepping the bounds of their legal authority and without any legitimate cause violating constitutionally protected rights,” PUCL said, and added, “By asking that Mukesh and Indori remove their social media posts, they overstep the limited authority they have been conferred in Section 41-A of the IPC.”

PUCL stands with those who undertook the fact-finding exercise as `fact-finding’ is the essence of human rights work. To criminalize fact-finding is to in effect criminalize human rights work itself. This would violate India’s international commitment under the 1999 UN declaration about human rights defenders as well as the constitutional commitment to protect the rights of opinion, expression and association.

PUCL demanded that the FIR registered against the lawyer’s team of Mukesh, Indori and others be immediately withdrawn and no further action undertaken pursuant to the notice.

“We demand that the conclusion of the fact-finding report be implemented in letter and spirit so that all officials found to be complicit in abdicating their responsibility to enforce the law fairly, fearlessly and impartially and failure to prevent communal violence in different parts of Tripura state in October 2021 are prosecuted,” PUCL said.

PUCL stressed that “it is important that all those who were responsible for the communal attacks also be criminally prosecuted.”

PUCL said that these measures will act as necessary efforts to ensure that Tripura again enjoys communal harmony and peace “which marked its history for decades after independence.”