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Whose Freedom?

A year and a half back, I was on my way to an Anti-CAA protest site with a few of my college friends in Bangalore. One of my friends is a very good artist and we had helped her make a beautiful poster for the protest. I encouraged her to put it up on her social media and a few days later she did, with a long caption about her feelings towards the new law. I was very proud. I wanted to share it with others but then I saw that the post was no longer there. When I asked her why she took it down, she said, “I am scared. What if I get arrested?” If we were living in a different time, I would have laughed it off and told her she was being dramatic. But her worries were nothing to be laughed about.

CAA protest

 Photo by Priyanka Rana

I come from a background where most of my family members have always been extremely outspoken about their opinions and have attended numerous protests and rallies for the same. However, this time when I informed them that I would be attending protests, instead of being excited for me, they would warn me to be careful and sometimes even try to convince me not to go. It was frustrating, but I knew where the worry was coming from. “Times are different, we have to be cautious,” they would say.

When my friends and I would attend the protests, sometimes there would be news going around that the police were coming with buses to take us to the station. Being college students living away from home, the organisers would advise us to leave. We would leave reluctantly because if we were to be detained, who would come get us out? Explaining to our relatives and local guardians our whereabouts would be another pain. It just seemed astonishing to me at the time, that the police were getting ahold of peaceful protesters whereas those carrying guns and giving out hate speeches still seemed to be roaming free.

No CAA written with candles

 Photo by Priyanka Rana

When the pandemic hit, protests across the country came to a standstill. So protesters had to shift to online platforms to show their outrage. We could no longer step out to express our dissent towards the controversial CAA, the government, meanwhile, didn’t seem to stop its propaganda.

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is supposedly an anti- terror law, but it is the first word, “unlawful”, which makes it extremely vague and subjective. What is unlawful and who decides that? If and when a person is booked under the UAPA–as per the 2019 amendment made by the current government–the question of bail doesn’t arise for a minimum of 180 days, sometimes even without a charge sheet. And it can get extended if the investigation is supposedly not over. The subjectivity and rigidness of the act is what makes it unreliable and terrifying. Anyone can get picked up today. You don’t have to necessarily be a criminal or even commit a crime. If the government suspects that you might indulge in an activity which harms their reputation, there is a big chance that you might just get booked.

Burqa clad women holding up placard saying 'We Need Equality'

Illustration by Meghna Pai

During the early days of the pandemic, many activists, students and leaders were arrested under the UAPA in relation to the Delhi Riots. The charge sheet filed by the Delhi Police named many opposition leaders and student activists, who were on the forefront of many of the protests; some of them were even close to a few of my family members and our friends. Those named were accused of being the key conspirators of the riots. The Delhi riots was a communal clash which saw many casualties, mostly on the minority side. However, instead of catching the actual perpetrators, the police, by the orders of the government, made all the protests spread across Delhi look like they were staged, even alleging that the organisers threatened and forced locals to join them.

The freedom of speech and protest is the heart of any democracy. However, conditions prevalent today severely curbs this one fundamental right which is supposedly the birthright of each and every Indian citizen.

Police standing in front of CAA protesters

Illustration by Srotoshwini Hegde

Is there anyone in this country who can speak their mind without fear? When one looks at the names and number of people who have been booked under the UAPA, one will know that they are mostly from marginalized communities such as Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis. Is it only the worshippers of the government then, who can voice their opinions freely?

The UAPA is a small part of a much bigger problem. We can demand for its repeal, however, within a few days a legislation might come into being with a different name and the same elements. The real problem is that our freedom of speech and expression is under threat. The government will stop at nothing to silence voices of dissent. We must remember that, as citizens of a democratic nation, where it is our right to choose our leaders, it is also equally our right to question them and their actions.

As people living in a democracy, the need of the hour is to set irrational prejudices aside and come together to raise our voices for those who can’t.

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