From cracking down on cow slaughter to silencing critics, some states have been quick to invoke the law
This year, till August 19, the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government has invoked the draconian National Security Act (NSA) against 139 people; in cow slaughter cases for 76 of them. Thirteen arrests were linked to anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in the state, reports The Indian Express (IE), while six to crimes against women and children and 37 to heinous crimes. The NSA, whose stated purpose is to prevent individuals from acting in a manner “prejudicial to certain state objectives”, including national security, public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community, allows the government to detain a person up to 12 months without charges, trial, or any such rights that are available in the normal course. Indeed, a detainee under the Act may not even be informed of why she has been detained under the Act for 10 days. Such sweeping powers in the hands of the state, predictably, have led to misuse—a glaring example being the UP government’s trigger-happy attitude with the invocation of the Act. UP’s NSA-for-cow-slaughter has continued despite the minister of state for home affairs, G Kishan Reddy, having told Parliament last December that “transporting of cattle” and “cow slaughter” are not offences under NSA, while adding the caveat that police and public order are state subjects. As per a senior UP government official quoted by IE, chief minister Yogi Adityanath has directed that the NSA be invoked in cases of crimes which may affect public order “so that there is feeling of fear among criminals and a feeling of safety among the public”. It is telling that the UP government, last year, used the NSA against three people accused of cow slaughter in Bulandshahr, while this wasn’t done for those who were part of the mob protesting the cow slaughter that lynched a police official and were later charged with his murder.
These are not the only instances of abuse of the NSA in UP—the Allahabad High Court recently ordered the release of Dr Kafeel Khan, while the government had detained him for over six months. The Court held that Khan’s speech at an anti-CAA protest had made no attempt to destabilise law and order or vitiate public order. Bear in mind, Khan was arrested two months after his speech; this mocks the NSA’s preventive detention spirit. Other states have also misused the NSA—recall the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh using it in a cow slaughter case and the Manipur government detaining a journalist under the law for uncharitable comments on the chief minister—a couple of days after a magistrate granted him bail for the offence!
While state governments need to act according to the spirit of the NSA, the fact is that the law also provides for a three-member advisory body to look into decisions to detain people for prolonged periods under the Act. Given the three must be retired or sitting High Court judges or qualified to be a judge of the High Court, some part of the blame must also fall to the judiciary, for becoming mere rubber-stamps in such cases. It is important that the states and the Centre adopt a cautious approach on the use of the NSA, and indeed other such extraordinary laws like the Public Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Else, these well-intended, and perhaps even necessary, laws will become tools to disempower citizens and will contribute to a rising record of violation of civil liberties—between 2017 and 2018, as per NCRB, NSA invocations rose by more than a third, from 518 to 697.