Public Safety Act in Jammu and Kashmir (J and K)
There was an outrage over the Jammu & Kashmir government’s decision to free separatist leader Masarat Alam, who was detained eight times under the Public Safety Act (PSA). Although there had been intermittent calls for revoking AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), there has hardly been a strong appeal to repeal the act, which is also draconian in nature. While most of us know that an individual can be detained under the Public Safety Act for a maximum of two years without a court order, there are other punitive provisions that one may not be aware of.
What is Public Safety Act, 1978
The act was brought into effect in 1978, primarily to adopt a tough measure against timber smuggling in the state. It was much later that the act was frequently used to control militancy-related incidents. Under this act, the government can declare any area as ‘protected’ and exercise authority to regulate entry of any citizen in the protected area. Attempts to forcefully enter the designated areas invite prosecution.
The Public Safety Act gives Jammu & Kashmir government the power to detain anyone who acts “in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public order”. To be precise, an individual faces the risk of being detained if he or she is found “promoting, propagating, or attempting to create feelings of enmity or hatred or disharmony on grounds of religion, race, caste and community”. This detention without trial happens under the pretext of maintaining public order.
Amendments made to Public Safety Act
It was back in 2012 when the state legislature amended PSA by relaxing some of its strict provisions.
The pre-trial detention period was reduced. In the case of first-time offenders or individuals who act against the security of the state for the very first time, the detention period for such individuals was reduced from two years to six months. However, the option of extending the term of detention to two years was kept open, if there is no improvement in the conduct of the detainee.
After the amendment, the provision for detention of individuals “acting in any manner prejudicial to the maintenance of public law” was made less stringent. In case of first-time offence, the detained individual can be released after three months, although his detention can be extended to one year. The Omar Abdullah government had supported this revision.
It was only after the amendment that another crucial provision was put in place. It introduced the rule that minors (below the age of 18) cannot be detained under the PSA.
It was also made mandatory for the detaining authority to furnish reason for any detention.
Despite the revision, the government still retains enough power to curtail freedom of people under the garb of ensuring state security and public order.
Criticism of Public Safety Act
Human rights groups are almost unanimous in their stand – PSA results in wrongful detentions. Amnesty International has been aggressivly churning out reports on number of people detained over the years. Most advocacy organisations have opined that the state has been using the PSA to imprison suspects without adequate evidence. Many innocent people had become a prey to political vendetta because this act gives sweeping powers to the ruling party.
According to a rights activist, Jammu and Kashmir uses PSA “to keep people they can’t or won’t convict through proper legal channels locked up and out of the way.” On another front, PSA has been criticised for denying citizens the right to fair trial and justice.