The FIR registered by the Delhi Police against Prabir Purkayastha, the founder of NewsClick, and others is a vague amalgam of sweeping accusations that do not actually disclose any offence, leave alone one of terrorism. Without citing any published content, the FIR alleges offences range from a conspiracy to undermine the country’s security to disrupting the 2019 parliamentary polls, from causing disaffection against the government to disrupting essential services. It invokes provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and penal provisions relating to conspiracy and promoting enmity between different groups. Quite notably, it does not mention any overt act that may be described as unlawful activity or a terrorist act. There is a general description that foreign funds were infused illegally into India by forces inimical to the country with the objective of causing disaffection against the government, disrupting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India, and threatening its unity and security. It refers to a ‘conspiracy’ based on purported email exchanges to show Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir as “not part of India”, and also moves to protract the farmers’ agitation of 2020-21 and thereby disrupt supply of services and other essential supplies.
Overall, it is quite clear that the police are combining the remittances by American businessman Neville Roy Singham in NewsClickwith its journalistic content to build a case that “Chinese” funds are being used for propaganda, fomenting unlawful activities, and undermining the country’s security. The UAPA is also conducive to such misuse as its widely defined terms can as easily help criminalise people for ‘thought crimes’ as for their acts. The resort to UAPA is also a tactical aid to prolong the incarceration of dissenters and the disfavoured, and send out a chilling message to the wider media fraternity. There is also the likely electoral spin-off in its potential for the ruling BJP to milk the ‘Chinese conspiracy’ theory in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. A related question is whether the alleged creation of shell companies by two telecom companies does not merit more than a casual mention in an unrelated FIR and warrant a separate probe into these conduits for funding terror. In mentioning that a lawyer was among those who helped create a legal network for these companies’ defence, the police seem to be considering criminalising legal services. The case flags a disturbing trend: the present regime’s propensity to misuse anti-terror laws and invoke national security sentiment to undermine individual and media rights.