Goonda Act: An act of colonial coercion lives on

Almost a century old Goondas Act has become a tool to put anyone in prison even without giving them an opportunity to explain their side of the story.

Published: 06th August 2017 08:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th August 2017 07:45 PM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI:  A 23-year-old journalism student who was distributing pamphlets against oil extraction projects. A pro-Eelam activist who organised a candlelight vigil. A man who sold pirated CDs of a few movies. On first sight, there may seem like these people would have nothing in common but they do. They are all ‘goondas’.The ambit and the number of persons detained under the Goondas Act have increased phenomenally in recent years just like the full form of the Act itself—The Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Forest Offenders, Sand Offenders, Slum-Grabbers and Video Pirates Act, 1982. 

Recently, the Supreme Court warned against the indiscriminate use of the law against bootleggers, dacoits and goondas to push people into preventive custody.It was first enacted in 1923 in Bengal and lives on in some form or the other in several states in India. The law aims at a year-long preventive detention of habitual offenders. But the use of the Act is extended so much that now it has become a tool to put anyone in prison even without giving him an opportunity to explain his side of the story before the courts.

“Preventive detention goes against the grain of a fair trial process,” said Geeta Ramaseshan, a reputed Chennai-based advocate. “It provides means for those who can’t be convicted to be detained which is denial of liberty. Historically, the Act has been associated with detaining those who show political dissent and we could probably see more people being booked under this law for political dissent.”

J Agnes Sasitha, head of the Sociology Department at Stella Maris College, echoes the sentiment. “In a modern democracy, the emphasis should be on restorative justice rather than retributive justice. The Goondas Act which is a form of preventive detention infringes on human rights as well. Its use must be restricted to crises.”On July 16, Valarmathi, a journalism student, was detained under the Act for taking part in Kathiramangalam’s oil pipeline protests. Valarmathi was then accused of being a Maoist sympathiser by the police. The previous month, Thirumurgan Gandhi, the convener of the May 17 movement, was detained under the Act after his arrest for staging a candlelight vigil to commemorate civilian victims in the last phase of the Eelam war.

According to the law, a ‘goonda’ is a person who, either by himself or as a member or leader of a gang, habitually commits or attempts to commit or abets the commission of offences. A perusal of the cases against these two persons clearly points out that all their protests were against the state’s policies. 
For example, the protests by Gandhi were on issues like demonetisation and other government policies. One of the cases against him was for waving a black flag during PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Chennai. 

While these two cases have abused the Act, statistics show that around 3,000 people are detained under Goondas Act every year in the state. This means on an average seven to eight people are detained every day. Incidentally, Tamil Nadu was the first state to add the ‘video pirate’ clause in 2004. In 2011, a Madras High Court bench ruled that even a single criminal case against a person is enough to detain him under the Goondas Act.

1923
The year the Act was  first enacted in Bengal. It lives on in some form or the other in several states. It aims at a year-long preventive detention of habitual offenders.

7 to 8
People are detained everyday on an average in the state.

Rs 8,000
Is reimbursed by the government towards paperwork to detain a person. However, a police inspector spends nearly `16,000.

"In a modern democracy, the emphasis should be on restorative justice rather than retributive justice. The Goondas Act which is a form of preventive detention infringes on human rights as well. Its use must be restricted to crises" -J Agnes Sasitha, head of the Sociology Department at Stella Maris College

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