The invocation of UAPA charges against members of a fact-finding team shortly after they released its findings on the communal violence in Tripura, is shocking and condemnable. Besides S. 13 of UAPA (punishment for ‘unlawful activity’), a slew of IPC offences has also been invoked: 153 A and B of IPC (promoting enmity and anti-national activities), 120 B, 503, 504 (criminal conspiracy, criminal intimidation, breach of peace) as well as charges of forgery and fraudulence for harming reputation (469, 471). The police action of the Agartala PS is apparently with reference to their social media posts.
In recent times there have been several instances of the use of S. 13 of the UAPA against individuals for their social media activities, such as against journalist Masrat Zahra in April 2020, or against ‘various’ social media users by the J&K police in February 2020, or against 16 persons in Assam who were charged for putting up social media posts supporting the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, in August 2021. In many instances, these charges don’t stand scrutiny in court, as evident in the Assam case where 14 out of the 16 persons have been granted bail by various courts. And yet, the police, in various parts of the country, continues to book people under this draconian section precisely because of the suffering and harassment rooted in a harsh legal system.
While the present case of the four team members being booked is an obvious example of this process by which the ‘normalization’ of the ‘unlawful’ clause of the draconian UAPA is being sought, what is extremely disturbing is the way in which the findings made by the fact-finding team are also being discredited. It bears remembering that the genesis of the violence in various parts of Tripura in late October 2021 began during the VHP and HJM (Hindu Jagran Manch) rallies which were protesting the attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh. Media reports have shown that on October 26, in Panisagar town (North Tripura), sections of the VHP protest rally attacked homes and shops and a mosque. Importantly, a month before, in early September 2021, the state had witnessed also attacks and vandalism of left party offices and newspaper offices in the wake of clashes between the BJP and the CPI (M) activists.
Given the dominance of communal electoral politics and the fact that the state elections are due in February 2023, the role of fact-finding teams probing the present violence becomes important, especially since Tripura, a border state which shares 856-kilometre-long border with Bangladesh and whose Muslim population is under 10%, has no known history of communal violence. The four-member team comprising lawyers and human rights activists, visited Tripura between October 30 and November 1, and stated that the violence was “targeted violence against Muslims” and that 12 mosques, 9 shops and 3 houses had been vandalized. The team was critical of the lacklustre response of the government and felt that timely action could have prevented losses.
The team has demanded an inquiry headed by a retired High Court judge for investigating the violence, compensating the victims and for rebuilding the damaged religious sites. The team asked for strict action against people and organizations for creating false posts over social media. Following their findings, the Tripura police chose to initially book 2 of the members, advocates Ansar Indori and Mukesh, and subsequently the other two advocates, Etesham Hashmi and Amit Srivastav, for spreading enmity and for provoking people based on their statements! This provocative action is fuels the government’s belief that there is a systematic campaign to “shame Tripura through fake news”. In keeping with this state narrative, a media report has stated that the police has lodged 11 cases, and as many as 70 social media users have been booked under criminal charges. While the identities of these users are not known, a Tripura police official did acknowledge that most are Muslims.
An unusual situation has emerged following the October violence. On the one hand, the violence initiated by provocative protest marches by Hindu organizations and by the inaction of the police has drawn attention of the High Court and the NHRC. On the other, the police action against the advocates for their role in ‘fake news’ is obviously meant to distract attention from the real issue of culpability. The retributive action against these lawyers is also aimed at discrediting the fact-finding team’s independent assessment of the events. Further, by simultaneously booking social media users, this state narrative—of being vilified by ‘outsiders’ and potential criminal—is being legitimated and furthered.
PUDR strongly condemns the Tripura police for its motivated charge against the fact-finding members and for causing harassment to them. It demands an immediate revocation of the charges made against the lawyers and also against the over 70 social media users. It reiterates the demands for an impartial probe into the October violence and demands compensation to those who suffered losses.
Vikas Kumar and Radhika Chitkara