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The Danger of Silencing Dissent


From April 1 until May 28, as many as 12 human rights defenders were arrested for engaging in peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act: Meeran Haider, Akhil Gogoi, Gulfisha Fatima, Safoora Zargar, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Shifa-ur-Rahman, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, Farhan Zuberi, and Ravish Ali Khan.

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These arrests were made under the UAPA, or the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967, and effectively impose curbs on the freedom of speech and expression of those arrested. Worse still, though, these arrests were made at a time when India had enforced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. A clear indication of the use of structural violence to target particular dissenters, this move is an unfair violation of the human rights of those arrested.

That a pandemic is raging, that there is no clarity on those that are symptom-less carriers, and that the potential for infection is still high have not stopped these arrests, nor the security sector to show humanitarian concern. It is especially shocking to see that a pandemic has been instrumentalized to serve as an enabling environment for structural violence to operate, and that basic human rights has taken a beating in this time. 

Pregnant, in her second trimester, 27-year-old Safoora Zargar sits in prison after being arrested in a case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for conspiracy behind the riots in Delhi earlier this year. She was denied bail, notwithstanding the fact that she is pregnant and there is a pandemic bringing the entire planet to a grinding halt. Even as Safoora languishes in jail, as a post by Jignesh Mevani on showed, those that fired bullets at peaceful protestors and those that fomented violence through hate speech continue to walk scot free. 

In a Medium post, Beatrice Phi wrote in the context of police violence targeting black people in the United States:

“Our laws are simply a reflection of what our democracy finds to be morally permissible, and thus the leniency with which police officers are given for their misconduct is a reflection of not insufficient legislation but rather the ways in which our civil society has historically enabled racism. From a very young age, we are all indoctrinated into certain predispositions about black people — of decadent welfare queens and criminal masterminds — and it is this underlying animus which always ends up pulling the trigger in the confrontations where black lives have never mattered.”

What Phi observed rings just as true in the context of the UAPA and the use of structural violence by the security sector in targeting peaceful protestors and human rights defenders, if not more. That a law like the UAPA continues to exist and operate, and can be called into use by the government to crackdown on dissent is in itself an assault on the collective conscience. The law does not operate in a vacuum, admittedly, what this legislation reflects is a route for structural violence to weaponize an instrument of social engineering to target select communities, to quell protest, and to silence dissent. To critique, call out, and question a government lies at the very core of a democracy. Quelling these rights treads a thin, but dangerous line between democracy and a derisive mockery of it.