UAPA and Presumption of Guilt Against Muslims

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After spending long time in jail 127 Muslim men arrested under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) were acquitted by a Gujarat court after more than 19 years of “due process”. Five of them even died pending the long trial. The charge against them ­– terrorism.

All 127 Muslims were falsely accused as “terrorists” after they gathered in 2001 during the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in Gujarat to attend a three-day seminar on Muslim education. They were charged for being members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and for organising the meeting to “promote and expand” SIMI’s activities. The gathering included students, professors, activists and community leaders from across India.

The Gujarat court while acquitting them said the prosecution failed to produce “cogent, reliable and satisfactory” evidence to establish that the accused belonged to SIMI or had gathered to promote the group’s activities. Meaning ­– that the police raided a “public seminar” but still could not collect “terrorism” related talks allegedly delivered therein as evidence or the police did not even bother about the talks but picked up Muslim men because there were “students” and “Muslims” fulfilling the criteria they thought was enough to accuse them as members of “Students” “Islamic” Movement of India. When the police failed to show that their activities were “unlawful” there was no further chance of proving they were SIMI ­– since there was nothing “unlawful” there could be no SIMI.

SIMI was banned by the BJP government in 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in United States when Muslims around the world began to be treated as “terrorists” while armed terror attacks on Muslims began to be claimed as “defence”. The ban was lifted by a tribunal in 2008 but reinstated on national security grounds and continues to be extended. Hundreds of its alleged members have been arrested and police have killed many in “encounters” for being “SIMI members”.

Whether being called terrorist or member of a banned outfit, the 9/11 attacks made it easy to attack, kill or put Muslims in jail. It even enabled vested interests to enforce a presumption of guilt on Muslims.

In the past few decades, hundreds of Muslims have been booked in bogus terror-related cases, most of them resulting in an acquittal of the accused, but not before victims had either spent years in jail or facing court trials – sometimes, decades. A report by Lokniti in 2019, titled Status of Policing in India: Police Adequacy and Working Conditions, found that police in India displays “significant bias against Muslims”, with half of the police personnel saying Muslims are “naturally prone towards committing crimes”. Muslims continue to be jailed by state governments bringing laws that presume them guilty of “love jihad”.

The victims of 2001 unlawful arrests faced the ordeals of UAPA, the trial and life as “terror accused”. Several lost government jobs and could not find work for years or even support their families. Mohammad Abdul Hai who worked as an associate professor on December 27, 2001 retired at the same position in June 2015. He says he couldn’t get a single promotion all these years and lost monetary benefits a government employee gets, including gratuity at the time of retirement. Many others were suspended or forced to resign after being labelled “SIMI member”. Others have said how the case “ruined” their lives.

Although the accusations have failed but it appears the police with “orders” and not “evidence” can, without legal accountability, make unlawful arrests, invoke UAPA or now even other laws, to keep Muslims in long periods of detention. Neither the government officials nor the police face prosecution for false imprisonment.

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