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September 19, 2004

India's 'PATRIOT Act' Repealed


by Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI - After snaring thousands of politicians, teenagers, politicians, journalists, members of minority communities but few terrorists, India, this week, repealed its "PATRIOT Act" introduced in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

A government statement said the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had at a meeting Friday decided to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) with a new law.

"It is important to note the intention of the government is to protect the rights of people vis-à-vis the misuse of POTA," the statement said.

The unpopularity of POTA contributed to the electoral debacle of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in May by the communist-backed, Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Indeed, the Congress Party and its allies had made misuse of POTA a major election issue and vowed to make its repeal a priority, ignoring dire warnings from BJP leaders, including former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that this would be an invitation to increased incidents of bombings and suicide attacks.

The Congress Party and its allies had opposed the introduction of POTA in Parliament on the grounds that it would be used by a pro-Hindu government to victimize members of the minority Muslim community. But Congress did not have the numbers to prevent passage of the bill on Mar. 26, 2002.

Impetus for the introduction of POTA picked up after a suicide squad stormed Parliament House on Dec. 13, 2001 but failed to blow up the monumental red sandstone building only because the car bomb that was used did not detonate owing to faulty wiring.

The then Vajpayee government blamed neighboring Pakistan for the incident and made preparations for an armed confrontation with Islamabad.

Friday's repeal, subject to the formality of presidential approval, came by bureaucratic fiat because the government was denied a chance to gain Parliamentary approval after BJP legislators recorded their objections by disrupting all business during the just-concluded budget session.

"The government has been concerned with the manner in which the POTA has been misused in the past two years," Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil told reporters after the release of the government statement.

Patil dismissed charges made by BJP leaders that the repeal compromised India's fight against terrorism, saying that the government would soon strengthen the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act passed in 1967.

According to Patil, the older law would, on amendment, include such POTA features as the banning of terrorist organizations and their support systems, including funding. In fact, he said, all 32 militant organizations banned under POTA would continue to be declared illegal.

Importantly, the onus of proving the guilt of the accused once again shifts back to the prosecution and provisions in POTA that allow the arrest, interrogation and detention of suspects for 30 days before production in a court of law have been done away with.

Under POTA, confessions made to security forces can be used as evidence, as can communications secretly intercepted and recorded.

The Congress Party's prediction that the BJP government would use POTA to victimize members of the Muslim community seemed to come true in western Gujarat, where all 287 cases brought before the courts after the anti-Muslim pogrom in the state in 2002 were from the minority community.

Fifty-eight people were killed when a train carrying Hindu activists was allegedly set ablaze by a Muslim mob near the town of Godhra in western Gujarat. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in riots following the attack.

Gross misuse of POTA in Gujarat has come under criticism by India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) – a statutory body – and by the London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

"Over the past two years POTA has been used mostly against juveniles, old people, members of dalit [ritually low caste Hindus groups], adviasis [aborigines], women, political opponents and those struggling for their socioeconomic rights," Colin Gonsalves, a well-known lawyer and human rights activist told IPS.

Gonsalves organized hearings by "People's Tribunals" of testimonies by victims of POTA, which were widely publicized and were greatly influential in its eventual repeal.

Ram Jethmalani, who was Union Law Minister at the time POTA was passed, told the media later that he deeply regretted it afterwards. "I supported it only because it was done in obedience to United Nations Security Council resolutions," he said.

The law has also been a subject of debate for its alleged use or abuse by several provincial governments against political rivals.

One such controversy relates to a regional leader in Tamil Nadu, Vaiko, who was imprisoned for more than a year under POTA for his alleged support of the banned Sri Lankan rebel group the Tamil Tigers.

Vaiko's party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), was among those who had approved POTA in parliament. But he and his southern allies later pulled out of the BJP government.

Meanwhile, human rights groups were guarded in welcoming the withdrawal.

"We are happy at the repeal of POTA," said Ravi Nair, director of the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center, an affiliate partner of the Bangkok-based regional rights body Forum Asia.

"But we would like to see what the government intends to do by bringing amendments to some of the laws for handling terrorism," Nair told IPS.

 

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