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week, repealed its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
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
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
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,"
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.