"Despite men's suffering, despite the blood and wrath, despite the dead who can never be replaced, the unjust wounds and the wild bullets, we must utter, not words of regret, but words of hope, of the dreadful hope of men isolated with their fate.” Thus wrote the French philosopher, journalist, and Nobel laureate Albert Camus in an essay. Such words might have given slivers of hope to Siddique Kappan over the two years and four months — 846 days — that he was made to spend in jail charged with offences that seemed incredulous. But Kappan, 43, was denied books in English and Malayalam, the two languages he knew, and instead offered books in Hindi — a signal of how deliberately merciless the judicial system can be.
Kappan, a New Delhi-based journalist who worked in his mother tongue Malayalam for news portals, was arrested with three others when they were on their way to Hathras in October 2020 to report on the gangrape murder of a young Dalit woman which had taken the nation by storm. They were accused by the Uttar Pradesh police of creating law and order problems and inciting violence. The rest were subsequently released but Kappan continued to be held in custody on charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and later charged under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
The prosecution even brought accusations of his association or involvement with the controversial Popular Front of India (PFI), banned in September last year for its alleged links with terror groups, two years after his arrest. Kappan strenuously denied all charges and sought bail, but it required the Supreme Court to emphasise the “bail, not jail” principle while granting him bail last year buthe was immediately taken into custody on other cases.
At one point, it appeared as if the prosecution was willing to slap any charges to keep Kappan behind bars, such were the arguments it offered in courtrooms. Kappan became the unlikely but true barometer of India’s right to free speech and expression, especially in journalism, as it coincided with other journalists and dissenters being trapped inlegal cases or put behind bars. India dropped eight places last year to rank at 150 on the 180-country World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders whose report unequivocally stated that press freedom is in crisis in “the world’s largest democracy”.
Kappan’s story has been documented and will continue to be, but what this calls for is a thorough and independent review of the UAPA’s application over the years — which has been skewed against Muslims, Dalits and tribals — in ways that the Act is more aligned with the democratic values. The government must have laws to deal with terrorism but citizens must not be made to pay the price that Kappan — and several others — unjustly did.
A study by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties found that 8,371 persons were arrested under UAPA between 2015 and 2020, but only 235 were convicted in this time period; also, 80% of the cases filed wereunder inthe NarendraModi era while a staggering 92.7% of the accused had been incarcerated for a long time and eventually acquitted.
If the Central government disregards the PUCL report, let it constitute a review committee to examine the issue exclusively on facts and without prejudice. Kappan’s arrest and long incarceration raises inescapable and critical questions about the health of India’s democracy itself including, and especially, about the rule of law.
The UAPA was amended several times, the last in 2019 to charge not only organisations but individuals as terrorists, a label they cannot expunge. The amendments also reversed the burden of proof to place it on individuals. This is as undemocratic as it could be.
Congress leaders flagged this “threat to democracy” clearly forgetting that the initial amendments to make the UAPA draconian were brought under that party’s government. Irrespective of the government, the UAPA needs to be evaluated — without fear or favour. No more ‘Kappans’ must live in “dreadful hope of men isolated with their fate".
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