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May 31, 2004

India Seeks to Repeal Its PATRIOT Act


by Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, (IPS) - India's ousted right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not been looking kindly at moves by the new Congress party-led government to undo its policies, warning against plans to repeal anti-terrorist laws introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The Common Minimum Program of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which the coalition government released this week, includes making good an election promise to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).

Reacting to the announcement, BJP president Venkaiah Naidu accused the new government of ignoring what he called “the real threat of terrorism in Kashmir and in several parts of the country.”

“The BJP alerts the nation to the ominous move by the ruling alliance to bring in a terrorist-friendly legislative regime,” Naidu said in a statement.

To emphasize his point, Naidu drew attention to the May 23 ambush by the Pakistan-based Hizb-ul-Mujahideen militant group on a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir that left 30 people dead.

But looking back, the BJP's refusal to repeal or even review the often misused POTA cost it a valuable political ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in southern Tamil Nadu state.

The party cited the anti-terrorist law, passed in the wake of the September 2001 attacks, as a reason for switching allegiance to the Congress party in the elections held through April and May.

At the end of the elections, the DMK came away with all the 40 parliament seats from Tamil Nadu. Not a single seat was won by the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party of chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, who was most associated most with gross misuse of POTA for narrow political ends. In fact, a political leader whom Jayalalithaa had incarcerated for nearly two years under POTA – Vaiko (one name) – is now a cabinet minister in the UPA government.

Election analysts have said that those 40 seats from Tamil Nadu alone could have decided the outcome of the elections, in which the Congress-led alliance scored a stunning, surprise victory over the favored BJP and its alliance.

POTA has been under fire not only by the victorious political parties in the now-ruling UPA, but also by human rights groups including the London-based Amnesty International. Amnesty has been particularly concerned about the use of POTA against members of the minority Muslim community in western Gujarat state, where a bloody pogrom occurred in 2002 under a BJP-led government led by chief minister Narendra Modi.

"The right of minorities to live in the country as equals was increasingly undermined by both state and non-state actors despite it being clearly asserted in the constitution," the London-based watchdog said in its 2002 report.

"Religious minorities, particularly Muslims, were increasingly targeted for abuse," Amnesty said. "In Gujarat, Muslims were victims of massacres allegedly masterminded by nationalist groups with the connivance of state agencies."

Amnesty said about 140,000 people fled their homes in the aftermath of the violence and many were still homeless months after.

"The Gujarat government did not actively fulfill its duty to provide appropriate relief and rehabilitation to the survivors," the report said. Justice was hampered by the fact that the police, accused of colluding with the attackers, were in charge of investigating the riots, according to critics both here and overseas.

Independent reports and India's own official human rights watchdog, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), confirmed the same – and so did the Supreme Court this year.

After the May electoral debacle, BJP leaders have admitted that the Gujarat pogrom may have cost the party greatly in political terms. Modi is currently facing a serious rebellion within the BJP unit in Gujarat, since a sizeable faction of it blames him for the BJP's electoral defeat at the national level.

Apart from Muslims in Gujarat, journalists, activists, politicians and socially and economically marginalized groups such as tribals and women became victims of POTA and were arrested and subjected to abuse and torture in prisons across the country.

A celebrated example of a POTA case going wrong is that of Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani, a Delhi University lecturer of Kashmiri origin who was arrested and charged of complicity in the Dec. 13, 2001 attempt to blow up India's Parliament using a bomb-laden car.

Geelani was sentenced to death by a POTA court but was acquitted by the Delhi High Court on Oct. 29 last year.

The damage dealt by legislation such as POTA, however, goes farther than that. Nandita Haksar, the well-known lawyer and human rights activist who defended Geelani in court, said the acquittal showed up not only the failure of POTA but just how weak democratic institutions were becoming in India.

 

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Harry Browne is a best-selling author and two-time Libertarian Party nominee for president.

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