Fighting Terror, the Far-Right Way
by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Newton's Third Law of Motion now has nearly as neat a political parallel. Every non-state terror strike against human lives leads to an opposite and often more than equal state assault on human rights. The New Delhi blasts of September 13 have led to no different a sequel.
India has witnessed ten major serial explosions of this kind in the post-9/11 period, excluding the still mysterious attack on the country's parliament on December 13, 2001, and militant offensives mainly targeting the army and security forces. The fallout of the calamity, which has become frequent and familiar, has been predictable every time. The reaction to terror-wrought tragedies, from powerful sections of the political spectrum and, particularly the far right, has been remarkably the same and twofold.
Every time, even before the blood at the site has dried and bodies are being counted, the far right and its friends - as well as even some of its avowed foes that are not free from its influence - hasten to point fingers at the usual suspects. No investigations are deemed necessary before "Islamic terror" is indicted, and the culprit is identified as "cross-border terrorism," aided and abetted by local "sleeper cells."
The second reaction, which follows within a split second, is to demand "more stringent anti-terror laws," with less rights for the often arbitrarily accused than allowed under law for even a common criminal. Without severe curbs on human rights, it is asserted, inhuman terrorism cannot be combated.
The story has been repeated after the five blasts in crowded and central areas of New Delhi, claiming a toll of 22 lives so far and seriously injuring at least 98. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political front of the parivar or the far-right "family," in fact, has outdone itself on this occasion. And for a good reason. Assembly elections are coming soon in New Delhi and other states, while the country's general election is due in early 2009.
A couple of anti-minority riots have always been the party's preferred method of campaigning for elections. The New Delhi explosions have given it on a platter a divisive issue of its heart's desire.
BJP leader and former deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani surprised no one by calling immediately for a stringent "anti-terror law" again. He added two riders to the demand. He upheld, in the first place, such a law passed by the assembly in the State of Gujarat as a model for the rest of the nation. The Gujarat Control of Organised Crime (GUJCOC) Bill is a brainchild of Chief Minister Nerendra Modi, whose name is written in golden letters in the annals of a grateful Indian fascism, for the grisly anti-minority pogrom six years ago. Advani shared Modi's indignation at New Delhi sitting on the bill and stalling its enactment.
Secondly, he seized the occasion to demand the re-enactment of India's own Patriot Act, passed by the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the wake of 9/11. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) elicited all-round popular opposition. One of the first steps of the United Progressive Alliance government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to scrap the draconian act as promised in the UPA's poll manifesto.
Turning the clock back, Advani declared: "The POTA will be restored and the terror control acts forwarded by the States would be given ratification if the NDA (the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance) comes to power."
No prize for guessing where the Vajpayee government got the POTA idea. The war on rights was the official New Delhi response to 9/11 and a Washington diktat in its wake. Piloting the law in a joint session of both Houses of Parliament on March 26, 2002, Advani talked of it as a post-9/11 imperative. He said it would "meet a call made by United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1373, passed on September 28. This resolution said: 'All states shall ensure that any person who participates in the financing, planning, preparation or perpetration of terrorist acts is brought to justice'."
The resolution, it is needless to recall, was a faithful reflection of the official US wish and will. The "justice" to which it referred represented a blatant denial of the basic norms of civilized jurisprudence. India was one of several countries that responded to the resolution by passing laws targeting civil liberties and democratic rights in the name of tackling terrorism.
The POTA was opposed for its many obnoxious provisions. It put the onus on the accused to prove his or her innocence. It treated confessions made to police (often obtained under torture) as acceptable evidence. The law was all the more lawless in being directed particularly against a minority, especially in its implementation. The 30 terrorist organizations listed in the POTA included 11 Muslim and four Sikh bodies, but no outfit of anti-minority terrorism like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), spearhead of the Gujarat carnage of 2002 that claimed nearly 3,000 Muslim lives. The POTA has not even been invoked against members of the non-minority organizations that do figure in the list, like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and extreme-Left groups.
As for Modi's law, the government of India has refused its assent on the ground that it had been drafted "on the lines" of the discredited POTA. According to analysts, in fact, it is worse than its forerunner on conspicuous counts.
For example, while the minimum imprisonment for harboring a terrorist under the POTA was three years, it is five years for harboring a member of an organized crime syndicate in the case of Modi's measure. While the POTA distinguishes between voluntary and forcible harboring, Modi does not. The POTA does not apply to any case in which the harboring was done by the husband or wife of the offender, while Modi's law makes no such exception. The POTA lays down: "Whoever knowingly holds any property derived or obtained from commission of any terrorist act or has been acquired through the terrorist funds shall be punishable." Quite deliberately, Modi's drafters delete the term "knowingly."
It is not as if Advani and Modi lack admirers in the opposite camp. National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan, some of whose strange statements we have noted in these column before, has doubled as Modi's defender. In an "internal communication," Narayanan is reported to have asked the Home Ministry to "reconsider" Modi's measure. Home Minister Shivraj Patil, said to be upset over the idea, is now known to be under pressure within the ruling circles to resign.
Support for Modi was also forthcoming from former President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, known for his fervent nuclear nationalism. Kalam, while in office, had refused presidential assent to the bill for its provision allowing interception of telephonic conversations. Now he pitched in for the bill, which retained other anti-rights provisions, on the ground: "We need to enact laws which will provide stringent punishment and which will deliver faster justice through quick disposal of cases."
Kalam and other anti-terror crusaders never seemed unduly worried about the inordinate delay in the disposal of cases related to the Gujarat massacre. To them, that was not a case of terrorism - it was, after all, only a minority that was being terrorized.
The Advani-Modi campaign for the POTA and GUJCOC causes greater alarm, coming in the wake of the far right's ferocious attack on another minority. I noted earlier the anti-Christian offensive in the state of Orissa, in a September 4, 2008, column. The offensive has now been extended to Karnataka, another state under the BJP's rule.
The POTA did not prevent terrorist strikes, even of the denomination-specific far-right definition, and even in Modi's Gujarat, while the BJP was in power in New Delhi. Will blasts, however, bring the party back to power and the savage law into the statute book again? Let us hope not.