India: Tough Act

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, photographed here on April 29, 2002, has pushed controversial anti-terrorism legislation through Parliament (Photo: AFP).

On March 26, a joint session of India’s Parliament voted in favor of the controversial anti-terrorism legislation known as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which opposition party leaders have deemed draconian and a grave threat to civil liberties. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called the rare joint session after the bill was rejected by the upper house.

The new law will allow the government to confiscate property from suspected terrorists and detain them for up to 90 days without trial. These powers had actually been in force under a presidential decree issued late last year (then known as the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, or POTO) that would have expired in April if not passed into law.

The ordinance had already been in force when the Dec. 13 terrorist attack on Indian’s Parliament and the violence in Gujarat State in March took place. That it proved ineffective in preventing the events is one of the primary arguments wielded by its critics. V.R. Krishna Iyer, writing in The Week (April 7), opined that POTO is “impotent” for that very reason: “POTO is pretense, an otiose measure suppressive of human rights and fair trial....”

Even Home Minister L.K. Advani, who piloted the bill, admitted that POTO was mostly pro forma, conceding to critics that the legislation is “not a panacea for terrorism, but one of the many steps required to create a feeling of security,” according to Frontline’s V. Venkatasen (March 30-April 12).

POTA passed into law with 425 ayes to 296 nays after a bitter 10-hour debate that was punctuated by vicious personal attacks between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Congress party president and opposition leader Sonia Gandhi. Gandhi, who raised the issue of the BJP’s recent failures in preventing the escalation of violence in Gujarat, feared that POTA would be used to target minorities and to carry out political vendettas. Critics have condemned the government for using POTO to slap charges on Muslims accused of initiating the Gujarat massacre, but not against Hindu extremists responsible for violent retaliation against their Muslim neighbors. Though the charges were eventually dropped, the BJP’s political foes still believe that the new law is shot through with religious discrimination. According to reports, Gandhi said the joint session was Vajpayee’s “moment of reckoning”: He could side with extremist allies or with duty. The prime minister shot back, taking umbrage at the personal attack and claiming that he had the people’s mandate.

Bhavdeep Kang, commenting in Outlook on the personality battle, said (April 8), “The prime minister losing his cool with opposition leader Sonia Gandhi in Parliament is being viewed as a carefully orchestrated effort—by belittling her and her objections to POTA, he was playing to saffron sentiments.” (Saffron is a sacred color of Hinduism.)

An April 8 editorial in India Today, however, found Gandhi’s “POTO/PM bashing” to be “remarkably dishonest.” The article argued for the necessity of the new law: “Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures. India today lives in nation-threatening times, and that is why POTO is inevitable.”