Rowlatt redux?

The Public Safety Act (PSA) dossiers against former Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, who completed six months of house arrest, appear to have come straight from the playbook of the world’s most authoritarian regimes. The 42-year-old Act allows a person to be taken into custody to prevent him or her from acting in a “manner prejudicial to the security of the state and maintenance of public order” for up to two years. Even within that broad and ambiguous remit, the dossiers against Ms Mufti and Mr Abdullah are bizarre and thin on hard evidence. The accusations against the two leaders do not go beyond the standard activities of any politician in a vibrant democracy. For instance, Ms Mufti is inexplicably referred to as “Daddy’s girl” (is closeness to her late father a security threat?), who has “dangerous and insidious machinations and [a] usurping profile and nature”. The proof? Critical statements about the Centre’s decision to read down Article 370 and 35A, which gave the former state of J&K its special status. Apparently, Ms Mufti’s warning that the Centre’s actions would be “akin to lighting a powder keg” and tweets criticising the criminalisation of Triple Talaq — statements that commentators all over India have echoed — make her a threat to public safety.

The dossier also says she collaborated with separatists, citing “confidential reports,” a standard alibi for non-evidence, though her demand that militants be treated with dignity after death may have been considered unpatriotic. The inconvenient truth that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) thought fit to ally with this same politician’s party between 2015 and 2018 appears to have been overlooked. The evidence against Mr Abdullah also focuses on his speeches in defence of Articles 370 and 35A and his unexceptionable statement that abrogating them would reopen debates about J&K’s constitutional status. Then, it urges his detention because his “capacity … to influence people for any cause can be gauged from the fact that he was able to convince his electorate to come out and vote in huge numbers even during peak of militancy and poll boycotts”. The logical dissonance in equating with incipient terrorism a politician’s ability to mobilise voters to exercise their franchise appears to have bypassed the dossier’s authors.

It can be said that both leaders have been hoist with their own petard, since J&K governments have regularly invoked the Act since it was passed in 1978 as terror threats began to mount. But the evidence on which the Centre has chosen to act suggests an unwarrantedly thin-skinned response to criticism for its decision to alter J&K’s status. It is also worth noting that it has fully exercised a 2018 amendment to the PSA Act, allowing individuals to be detained outside the state. All these actions bear an unsettling resemblance to the British response to protests against the Rowlatt Act of 1919. The difference is that those repressions were imposed by a colonial power on a subject people. To be fair, it’s not the BJP alone; successive governments in India have been on an overdrive on preventive detention. Remember the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), a controversial law passed by Parliament in 1971? Sadly, the tradition continues. If citizens’ right to criticise a government becomes a law and order threat, the future of the republic as a functioning democracy becomes an open question.

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