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'POTO is intended to polarise communal passions, not fight terrorism'

Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal tells Venkat Parsa that the government's determination to fight terrorism seems to have been spurred by the September 11 attacks on the US, not the decades-long struggle against terrorism in India.

How do you react to the oft-repeated resolve of the Vajpayee government to go in for hot-pursuit of terrorists across the border?
Why did this government offer unilateral ceasefire in November 2000 when terrorism was at its peak? It resulted in exposing the people of the sensitive border state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to greater terrorist attacks. Far from dealing with the menace of terrorism, the Vajpayee government has been constantly compromising with it. During the Kargil War, why was the government assuring the world community that it would not cross the Line of Control (LoC)? At that time, India could have legitimately pursued terrorist-breeding grounds and destroyed them? All this determination to fight terrorism seems to be a post-September 11 phenomenon, and not reflective of a genuine concern to tackle the terrorism menace, which has been haunting India for such a very long time.

How do you see the recently promulgated POTO?
The Vajpayee government has been bending over backwards in compromising with terrorism, contrary to its tall claims. What is it that has happened after September 11 that has suddenly caused the government to sit up? The reasons for this resolve point to a different direction. The Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are around the corner. Promulgation of POTO is one of the several acts intended to polarise communities, through which alone the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to exploit and garner majority votes. This is nothing but blatant appeasement of the vote-bank politics.

Why do you say so?
Consider these. The large-scale manipulation of a particular community was the starting point. Then came the defilement of the Taj Mahal. The banning of Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) followed this. Then came the storming of the disputed site in Ayodhya, following public pronouncement of threats that the temple will be built anytime after March 12, 2002. Now comes the POTO. The resolve does not seem to be to fight terrorism. The focus is on fighting a different battle - the battle of the ballot. This is borne out by the statement of Union Home Minister L K Advani that the Vajpayee government is in a win-win situation, no matter what the fate of POTO ultimately is. This definitely strongly reflects the political element in the ongoing debate on POTO.

How do you rate the chances of consensus on POTO?
The promulgation of POTO just before Parliament is due to meet on November 19 is yet another example of the government's unilateralism in matters that require national consensus. There are two broad issues for consideration. First, whether such a draconian law is necessary to combat terrorism. Second, if so, then inclusion of specific provisions to combat terrorism effectively, and ensure safeguards to prevent abuse at the hands of enforcement and governmental agencies. A national debate and consequent national consensus should have been evolved on the need for such a law before rushing about it.

Why do you attribute political motives to the Vajpayee government's talk of combating terrorism?
A government genuinely concerned with combating terrorism would not allow its ministers to call others anti-national, merely because they differ with the government. Those who oppose draconian measures cannot be called supporters of terrorism. A national debate has been muddied by irresponsible statements made merely to make the issues emotive, and thereby derive political mileage. It makes suspect the Vajpayee government's resolve to fight terrorism.

There are references to strong anti-terrorism laws enacted even by the liberal nations…
Please forgive them for they know not what they say. A comparison between provisions of POTO and the US Patriot Act, 2001, and the UK Anti-Terrorism Law, 2000, will demonstrate, per se, not only the flaws of POTO, but the imprecise deficiencies and other features, which make this law an instrument of oppression in the hands of establishment.

The Vajpayee government's claim is that POTO has been necessitated by the need to fight terrorism.
If, indeed, the Vajpayee government was serious about combating terrorism, it should have proposed such a law much earlier. After all, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, Union Home Minister L K Advani and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had been trying to convince the international community prior to September 11 that innocent people in India had been victims of terrorism. In fact, the sudden spurt in terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir in 1998 should have spurred the government to contemplate such a law. Large-scale infiltrations from across the LoC should have brought home the realisation that the situation should be dealt with firmly.

How do you assess the government's moves to seek extradition of terrorists?
While asking for extradition of Dawood Ibrahim, why did the Vajpayee government not ask for the return of those who seek to undermine the very existence of the nation? Why did enforcement agencies not produce evidence to ensure that Omar Sheikh is convicted under Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), despite the fact that the prosecution had in its possession the dairies, which contained his confession of having committed acts of terrorism in India? Did this reflect the resolve to deal with terrorism seriously?

How do you assess the record of the Vajpayee government's resolve to fight terrorism?
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's assertion of zero-level tolerance to terrorism rings loud in my ears. But the image of Jaswant Singh escorting the three terrorists - Maulana Masood Azhar, Zargar and Omar Syed Sheikh - to Kandahar in exchange for the freedom of the victims hijacking of IC-814, comes back before my mind's eye. Now, I wonder, why this 100 per cent tolerance to terrorism? Succumbing to terrorist demands was hardly evidence of the resoluteness of the Vajpayee government to fight terrorism (tehelka).

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