In 2016, Mandeep Singh Dhaliwal returned to Punjab from Canada, where he’d moved to with his parents a decade ago. He came back to get married. Two months after his wedding and weeks before the 32-year-old was to return to Canada, Dhaliwal was charged with violating the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The evidence against Dhaliwal, who worked as a plumber in Canada, ranges from names on his list of Facebook friends and his past experience with a “” species of birds: pigeons.
“The police said that I use pigeons to stay in touch with terrorists in Pakistan,” said Dhaliwal, who was once an enthusiastic pigeon racer and had participated in pigeon racing championships across north India.
After being taken into police custody in 2016, Dhaliwal got bail in 2017. Two years after the first information report was filed, Dhaliwal’s case was taken over by the National Investigation Agency. As of the writing of this article, the charges against Dhaliwal are yet to be framed and the trial is yet to start.
Dhaliwal has not been able to go back to Canada. He remains in limbo, living in rural Ludhiana. “It has been a terrifying experience. My friends and neighbours keep a distance from me because the state believes I’m a terrorist,” he told Newslaundry.
Evidence and social media
Dhaliwal’s story is not an exception in Punjab where local police easily invoke the UAPA, but then struggle to prove the allegations that have been levelled. In recent years, the Punjab police have turned to the accused’s social media to prove the charges in an FIR. Facebook posts, chats and comments are included as evidence in chargesheets. Online friends are upheld as terror associates and membership in a social media forum is interpreted as criminal conspiracy.
Abhinav Sekhri at Internet Freedom Foundation told Newslaundry that it was understandable that social media would be examined in criminal investigations for information and evidence since it forms such an important part of everyday life. “However, the manner in which police inquiry happens needs adequate scrutiny and checks,” Sekhri said. “Sometimes what appears to have a criminal angle on the basis of social media does not actually have much in it.”
In Dhaliwal’s case, for instance, his social media acquaintances have been held up as incriminating evidence. The police flagged that he was Facebook friends with Lahore-based Gajinder Singh, an accused in the case of to Lahore in 1981. A photo of Dhaliwal and Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Canadian head of the separatist organisation Khalistan Tiger Force, went online.
“He [Nijjar] is a plumber too and I knew him since we had the same supplier,” explained Dhaliwal. “Someone once clicked our photo together and it reached the Punjab police.”
Mandeep Singh Dhaliwal, a UAPA accused, in his village in Ludhiana.
The FIR against Dhaliwal was filed on May 24, 2016, at the Dakha police station on the basis of inputs from a “credible informer”. The FIR alleged Dhaliwal was an “anti-national” funded by terrorists; that he possessed ammunition; and had planned attacks across Punjab. He was charged under UAPA and the Arms Act with sedition, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity.
In June 2016, Dhaliwal was arrested. He says he was assaulted by police personnel while in custody. “It was brutal. They assaulted my genitals, which made me sexually dysfunctional. I’m still undergoing medical treatment,” he told Newslaundry.
In the course of its investigation, Punjab Police was unable to gather much evidence to substantiate its allegations. According to Dhaliwal’s legal counsel, Jaspal Singh Manjhpur, the police spent months probing the plumber, but could not find any connection between Dhaliwal and any arms or ammunition.
“They obtained one book on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, which is commonly available,” said Manjhpur.
The police went through Dhaliwal’s Facebook and Gmail accounts and extracted his phone data. “They found that Gajinder Singh and he [Dhaliwal] were friends on Facebook,” said the advocate. “But so are Gajinder and I. Does that prove a conspiracy against the state? Dhaliwal had written an innocuous Sikh greeting under one of his posts. That was used to link him [Dhaliwal] to Pakistan.”
In January 2017, the Punjab and Haryana High Court granted bail to Dhaliwal, pronouncing that “there is no semblance of evidence to attract the commission of offences” in the police’s case against him.
Dhaliwal alleges that torture in police custody rendered him sexually dysfunctional.
Casting the UAPA net
One of the earliest cases in which social media was used to prop up a UAPA case was in 2013, when Punjab police arrested 16 people – 15 men and one juvenile male – for plotting a terror act in Fatehgarh Sahib. The state submitted Facebook chats to substantiate its claims.
In the verdict passed in 2017 and accessed by Newslaundry, the juvenile was acquitted by the Juvenile Justice Board, which said the prosecution had “failed to prove the guilt of the juvenile beyond the shadow of reasonable doubt”.
Of the other accused who were out on bail, one died by suicide and another died of Covid-19 in 2021. The case is ongoing.
According to data compiled by Manjhpur, who studied court orders, jail records and media reports, UAPA has been invoked in 112 instances in Punjab since 2009. Singh has faced the draconian law’s wrath himself: he spent almost 18 months behind bars before securing acquittal in 2014. Now, Manjhpur represents most of the UAPA accused in Punjab. He says many are from marginalised communities and have extremely limited access to lawyers and due process.
In 2020, Sukhpal Singh Khaira of the Punjab Ekta Party (which later merged into the Congress), led a group of five opposition members of the legislative assembly to meet former chief minister Amarinder Singh. The group handed over a memorandum that demanded a probe into “false implication and arrests of Sikh youths under UAPA.”
The signatories included the former member of parliament Dharmvir Gandhi; former minister Sucha Singh Chhotepur; as well as MLAs Kanwar Sandhu, Jagdev Singh Kamalu, Pirmal Singh Khalsa and Jagtar Singh Jagga. All seven are either erstwhile or rebel leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party.
After Khaira’s memorandum, Giani Harpreet Singh, jathedar of the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of the Sikhs, asked the BJP-led central government and Congress-led state government to stop charging Sikh youth with UAPA.
“There is a dire need to order an independent judicial inquiry in this regard as poor Dalit youths are being targeted,” Singh .
Manjhpur said that of the 112 UAPA cases in Punjab, only three have seen convictions. Of those three, two were acquitted by the Punjab and Haryana High Court while an appeal for the third is pending.
He said one of the reasons for UAPA charges being dismissed was that due process was rarely followed when enforcing this law.
“Being UAPA, there are many important instructions for registering cases, investigating and issuing challans in court, but it is usually not followed,” said Manjhpur. “For example, a UAPA case cannot be investigated by a police officer below the rank of DSP [deputy superintendent of police]. The courts cannot charge without the approval of the government. The time for sanction is fixed, but not all courts pay attention to the fulfilment of these instructions, due to which cases are pending in courts and the detention of an accused increases.”
The Blast in Tarn Taran
On the evening of September 4, 2019, an explosion went off in Kaler village in Punjab’s Tarn Taran district. Two men were killed and one was injured. According to the NIA, which investigated the , these three were the perpetrators. NIA alleged they were part of a “pro-Khalistan terrorist gang” of 11 that had planned to “carry out violent acts against the members of a particular community” – specifically, a settlement of Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan, a popular religious organisation in Punjab.
The agency claimed the explosion was a mishap and the three had been digging out a bomb they had hidden in a farm, with the intention of lobbing it at an office of Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan.
Amarjeet Singh, 29, is one of the accused in the case. A farmer hailing from Fatehgarh Churia village of Gurdaspur, he was charged with violating UAPA and the Explosive Substances Act. The “evidence” that NIA presented to establish Amarjeet’s “nefarious intention and pro-Khalistani attitude” included the following: one of his contacts on WhatsApp had “Khalistan Jindabad” as their status; and a contact in Amarjeet’s phone was saved as “Guri Khalistani”.
“I was in jail for two years and four months,” Amarjeet told Newslaundry outside an NIA court in Mohali, where he was attending a hearing. “It ruined me. I can’t get a job nor can I get married because of this case.”
Amarjeet Singh from Gurdaspur said the UAPA case ruined him.
Another accused in the case, Harjit Singh, had allegedly exhibited an “inclination” towards Khalistan by being friends on Facebook with someone who had put up a post that read, “India is a terrorist country Khalistan Zindabad 2020.” NIA also put in its chargesheet that the co-accused Chandeep Singh had described his religious views on Facebook as “Sikh Khalistani”.
However, NIA’s allegations began unravelling during the trial.
The travel history of one accused (Manpreet Maan) indicated he was in Bahrain when NIA claimed he had been hatching a bombing plot in Punjab. Of the two accused who died in the explosion, one (Harpreet Singh) was Christian. The other, Bikkar Singh, turned out to be a follower of Divya Jyoti Jagran Sansthan – the very group that, according to NIA, Bikkar had been trying to bomb when he lost his life.
Records of proceedings were accessed by Newslaundry.
In January this year, the Punjab and Haryana High Court granted bail to Amarjeet. It said NIA could not prima facie establish its accusations. His social media activity “would not as such be conclusive proof that the appellant is a member of a terrorist group”, said the court.
A question of mindset
Human rights activist Sarabjit Singh Verka said UAPA is being used by the Punjab Police in much the way the law enforcement agency previously used the now-lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was repealed in 2004.
“The name of the law changed from UAPA to TADA to POTA to UAPA again but the ingredients remained the same – to arrest without evidence in order to stifle dissent and free speech,” said Verka.
TADA lapsed in 1995, but in 2001, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government introduced POTA, with provisions similar to TADA. Prime minister Manmohan Singh’s government repealed POTA amidst public outcry over its abuse, but also amended the UAPA – introduced in 1967 – to serve as an umbrella preventive detention law. In 2008, after the terror attacks in Mumbai, UAPA was further strengthened. In 2019, the Narendra Modi government amended the law to designate individuals as terrorists.
Verka believes that despite decades having passed since militancy was rampant in Punjab, the state police continue to act and react with a mindset shaped during the militancy years.
“Laws such as TADA were brought in at that time because the police needed excessive powers. Punjab Police started indiscriminate application of anti-terror laws against the Sikh community. As they often had no evidence required for conviction and without evidence, they couldn't put people in jail, TADA became a solution,” said Verka, who was himself booked under TADA in 1992.
The context of this overreach was the aftermath of Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984, when a section of the Sikh community lent support to Khalistani insurgents and militants amid harsh police measures, fake encounters and harassment.
According to Verka, the extent to which such draconian laws are used depends on those who head the state police in Punjab. “During the time of IPS officers such as KPS Gill and Sumedh Singh Saini, usage of TADA was exponential along with disappearances and fake encounters,” he said. “Later, things became better under Suresh Arora. But under Dinkar Gupta in the second Amarinder Singh government, [the number of] UAPA cases shot up in Punjab."
Newslaundry could not reach Saini for comments and Gupta refused to reply to our queries, saying he is no longer director general of Punjab police .
Punjab’s rising UAPA cases
The data on UAPA corroborates Verka’s claims. According to a 2021 reply by the ministry of home affairs in the Lok Sabha, the state government in Punjab, led by Captain Amarinder Singh, invoked UAPA more frequently than Prakash Singh Badal’s government.
From 2017 to 2019, at least 18 cases were registered under UAPA and nearly 100 individuals were arrested while these cases were being investigated. Between 2015 to 2016, these figures stood at four cases and seven arrests.
What is happening in Punjab is in line with a larger nationwide trend. As per the for 2020, there are nearly 4,021 ongoing cases of UAPA in India, while 796 new cases were registered in 2020 alone. In the same year, is seventh highest in the country, with 19 cases.
The NCRB data for 2021 is not out yet, but the union home ministry the Rajya Sabha in December 2021 that the NIA had registered seven sedition and UAPA cases in Punjab in 2021, which is the highest in the country and as many as the number for Jammu and Kashmir.
Over the past decade, Jaspal has sensed a pattern in Punjab’s UAPA cases. “It is clear that the government has prepared the same type of template” – inputs by informers, claims of Khalistani terror and misinterpreted social media activity – “under which these cases are registered and even the texts of most of the cases look as if they were copied and pasted on a computer,” he said.
Jaspal Singh Manjhpur was arrested in a UAPA case and acquitted. He now represents UAPA accused in Punjab.
Controlling the narrative
In terms of UAPA’s actual implementation, the responsibility falls on the police, who can sometimes be “too hungry to build a case”, said Abhinav Sekhri of Internet Freedom Foundation. “Persons are arrested and then, if they aren’t useful to the prosecution, rarely will the police support their bail. Instead, they will be recommended for judicial custody, and suffer many months in jail owing to the harshness of the UAPA bail regime.”
Congress leader Khaira believes the BJP government at the centre has a part to play in Punjab’s UAPA story.
“Punjab is a border state and BJP wants to create a false scare,” he alleged. “It is a narrative they want to build, that ‘Pakistan’, ‘terrorism’, ‘anti-India forces’ and ‘Khalistan’ are active in Punjab. These UAPA cases, drones, recovery of arms and now social media posts are ways of building that narrative. Often defenceless youth, mostly Dalits, are booked under terrorism charges. They have no means to even legally represent themselves. They are no less than lambs for sacrifice.”
The answer to whether UAPA is able to stifle dissent is up for debate. For those who find themselves embroiled in these cases, like Dhaliwal and Amarjeet, the disruptions and harassment they face are crushing. Yet social media is everywhere and its popularity only seems to grow with each passing year.
“From Amritsar to Toronto, anybody can express themselves on social media,” said Verka. “Police have no control. As the state feels helpless, they resort to such laws to restrict the public in the absence of evidence.”
Newslaundry has reached out to the Punjab police for comments. The story will be updated if and when they reply.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which our readers contributed to. It was made possible by Abel Sajaykumar, Devaki Khanna, Subhrajit Chakraborty, Somok Gupta Roy, Sathya, Shubhankar Mondal, Sourav Agrawal, Karthik, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Uma Rajagopalan, HS Kahlon, Shreya Sethuraman, Vinod Gubbala, Anirban Bhattacharjee, Rahul Gupta, Rejith Rajan, Abhishek Thakur, Rathindranath Das, Farzana Hasan, Animesh Narayan, A J, Nidhi Manchanda, Rahul Bhardwaj, Kirti Mishra, Sachin Tomar, Raghav Nayak, Rupa Banerjee, Akash Mishra, Sachin Chaudhary, Udayan Anand, Karan Mujoo, Gaurab S Dutta, Jayanta Basu, Abhijnan Jha, Ashutosh Mittal, Sahit Koganti, Ankur, Sindhu Kasukurthy, Manas, Akshay Sharma, Mangesh Sharma, Vivek Maan, Sandeep Kumar, Rupa Mukundan, P Anand, Nilkanth Kumar, Noor Mohammed, Shashi Ghosh, Vijesh Chandera, Rahul Kohli, Janhavi G, Dr Prakhar Kumar, Ashutosh Singh, Saikat Goswami, Sesha Sai T V, Srikant Shukla, Abhishek Thakur, Nagarjuna Reddy, Jijo George, Abhijit, Rahul Dixit, Praveen Surendra, Madhav Kaushish, Varsha Chidambaram, Pankaj, Mandeep Kaur Samra, Dibyendu Tapadar, Hitesh Vekariya, Akshit Kumar, Devvart Poddar, Amit Yadav, Harshit Raj, Lakshmi Srinivasan, Atinderpal Singh, Jaya Mitra, Raj Parab, Ashraf Jamal, Asif Khan, Manish Kumar Yadav, Saumya Parashar, Naveen Kumar Prabhakar, Lezo, Sanjay Dey, Ahmad Zaman, Mohsin Jabir, Sabina, Suresh Uppalapati, Bhaskar Dasgupta, Pradyut Kumar, Sai Sindhuja, Swapnil Dey, Sooraj, Aparajit Varkey, Brendon Joseph D’souza, Zainab Jabri, Tanay Arora, Jyoti Singh, M Mitra, Aashray Agur, Imran, Dr. Anand Kulkarni, Sagar Kumar, Sandeep Banik, Mohd Salman, Sakshi, Navanshu Wadhwani, Arvind Bhanumurthy, Dhiren Maheshwari, Sanjeev Menon, Anjali Dandekar, Farina Ali Kurabarwala, Abeera Dubey, Ramesh Jha, Namrata, Pranav Kumar, Amar Nath, Anchal, Sahiba Lal, Jugraj Singh, Nagesh Hebbar, Ashutosh Mhapne, Sai Krishna, Deepam Gupta, Anju Chauhan, Siddhartha Jain, Avanish Dureha, Varun Singhal, Akshay, Sainath Jadhav, Shreyas Singh, Ranjeet Samad, Vini Nair, Vatsal Mishra, Aditya Chaudhary, Jasween, Pradeep, Nilesh Vairagade, Manohar Raj, Tanya Dhir, Shaleen Kumar Sharma, Prashant Kalvapalle, Ashutosh Jha, Aaron D'Souza, Shakti Verma, Sanyukta, Pant, Ashwini, Firdaus Qureshi, Soham Joshi, Ankita Bosco, Arjun Kaluri, Rohit Sharma, Betty Rachel Mathew, Sushanta Tudu, Pardeep Kumar Punia, Dileep Kumar Yadav, Neha Khan, Omkar, Vandana Bhalla, Surendra Kumar, Sanjay Chacko, Abdullah, Aayush Garg, Mukarram Sultan, Abhishek Bhatia, Tajuddin Khan, Vishwas Deshpande, Mohammed Ashraf, Jayati Sood, Aditya Garg, Nitin Joshi, Partha Patashani, Anton Vinny, Sagar Rout, Vivek Chandak, Deep Chudasama, Khushboo Matwani, Virender Bagga, Keyur Gokhale, Shelly Singh, Goldwin Fonseca, Upasana Gupta, Leslie Isaac, Stephen, Anupam Kumar, Nishanth Perathara, Sudin, Bhavin Ved, Sriram Arthanari, Sanjit Mehta, Shashank Shekhar, Somsubhro Chaudhuri, Pallavi Das, Animesh Chaudhary, Dr Avishek Ghosh, Bharat Kumar, Renain Safi, Kanhu Kishore Nanda, Shubham Wankhede, Jagbir Lehl, Bharadwaj Upadyaya, Mohamed Suhair, Keith Rebelo, Saurabh, Aman Seth, Himanshu Singh, Malwika Chitale, Mohit Chelani, Abhishek Thakur, Utpal Kar, Abdul Aziz Abdul Gafoor, Aditya Kumar Tiwari, Chanchal K Mitra, Subhojit Bakshi, Jitendra Kumar, Subhransu Panda, Vaibhav V, Neerja Jain, Muzamil, Parminder Randhawa, Aishwarya Ghaisas, Siddharth Kulkarni, Fadil Sherrif, Jomy Mathew, Asim, Senthil Kumar Sakthivel, Abhimanyu Sinha, Srinivas Addepalli, Pratul Nema, Varun B Kothamachu, Aarushi Mittal, Sushil Gulati, George Isaac, Sameer Naik, Saurabh Naik, Ragesh Vyas, Vishal Sodani, Muhammad Shafeeque, Vivek Ashokan, Rachita Dutta, Sayani Dasgupta, Ashutosh Singh, Shrinjay, Siju Mathew, Paul Lazarus, Thufir Hawat, Kruttika Samant, Shireesh Vasupalli, Kanwarjit Singh, Deepak Keshri, Venkateshwar Rangala, Nagarjuna Reddy, Ashutosh Tripathi, Umesh Chander, Sandeep Kalyanasundaram, Abhishek Thakur, Pratyush Adhwaryu, Janhavi G, Siddhant Agarwal, Rajnish Thanekar, Amol Jadhav, Sunny Sureja, Jotinder Singh, Chinmay Sharma, Roderick Anthony, Krutik Arekar, Bharat Thakur, Gaurav Kolekar, SS Marmat, Umesh Pai, Anupam Patra, Vedant Chavan, Abhishek Sharma, Harsha Shettigar, Simranpreet Kaur, Sudarshan K M, Prerna Tyagi, and other NL Sena members.
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