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Published in the 16-31 Dec 2003 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

POTA boosted State terrorism
By N Jamal Ansari

Acquittal of Delhi University lecturer SAR Geelani and Afshan Guru in the Parliament attack case demands review of POTA as an effective weapon against terrorism. In fact POTA was opposed by saner elements of Indian society from the very beginning. But the BJP was desperate to have such a draconian law and enacted it in a haste. The experience of all the draconian laws MISA, TADA or POTA shows that laws alone were not sufficient to end terrorism. On the contrary it has been repeatedly pointed out that they are capable of gross misuse and abuse.

Laws such as POTA are being indiscriminately used on ordinary citizens. In February Sonbhadra district administration in eastern Uttar Pradesh invoked POTA against poor tribals. The helpless tribals were labelled supporters of Maoist Communist Centre (MCC). However, the fact was that they had rebelled against their feudal masters. In this case the state represented by district administration terrorised innocent tribals because they refused to work as bonded labourers. Besides this case, when Pratapgarh district police found an AK-56 assault rifle, explosives and weireless sets from the possession of Raja of Bhadri, Udai Pratap Singh and his son Raghuraj Pratap Singh, and booked them under POTA, then all hell broke loose. Right from BJP to Samajwadi Party, all had supported Raja Bhaiyya ignoring the fact the father and son duo were a terror in Kunda-Bhadri area of Pratapgarh. The burning question is why were these leaders silent when poor tribals in Sonbhadra were being branded extremists? It indicates that POTA will be used against helpless and weak masses to protect feudal system.

When MDMK leader Vaiko in Tamil Nadu was booked under this Act, several politicians including Home Minister L K Advani decried the decision of the Jayalalitha government in the state. Political compulsions forced the central government to constitute a Central Review Committee on POTA and empowered it to issue mandatory directions to the State governments. This committee headed by retired high court Judge A B Saharya took up the first case and sought the justification of the Tamil Nadu government in the case of Vaiko. Let us see the other side of the coin. According to press reports in Gujarat, all the people detained under POTA belong to exclusively one community. They are Muslims. The contradiction is quite visible. All the accused of Sabarmati Express burning at Godhra have been charged under POTA but not a single person involved in the post-Godhra genocide of Muslims has been booked under this Act. Why this discrimination on grounds of religion? These hard facts indicate real motives behind enactment of this draconian law. All such laws institutionalise authoritarianism. Hence there is urgent need to repeal them.

Before the enactment of POTA when it was in the shape of an Ordinance (POTO), Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley said, while addressing a meeting at the BJP headquarters at New Delhi in November 2001, that if terrorism had to be rooted out in the country, POTO will be needed. In continuation of his logic, he further said, "Its (POTO) provisions were only against terrorism and terrorist outfits." However, two years later, citizens of the country are noting with grave concern the misuse of the Act. Messrs Vajpayee, Advani or Jaitley may not have smelled true essence of the black law but every sensible person had warned about the possibility of its misuse.

As far as misuse of the Act is concerned, it is across the states and political parties. In Jammu & Kashmir, 426 people were booked under this law within 150 days of enactment. Police records show that 50% of those arrested were charged with sheltering or harbouring terrorists.

In this connection, Justice J S Verma, the then Chairman of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said in December 2001, "The experience of the working of stringent laws like MISA during the emergency and TADA in the recent past with no improvement in the performance and police culture is a lesson to be remembered while devising new strategies to combat terrorism" (The Pioneer, December 6, 2001).

There are also some harsh realities which we must analyse before any conclusion. The BJP was fully determined to enact this law despite opposition from several quarters. Taking advantage of the international resolve to fight terrorism L K Advani, Union Home Minister had cleverly decided to make POTA as the most potent weapon to reconsolidate Hindu votebank. The message which went out was that POTA may be used by the BJP-led government only against a particular community since it was totally absurd to imagine that the present government could use the law against Hindutva militants or fundamentalists. Today the fears proved to be true. Why is that Muslims outnumber all other religious communities as POTA detainees at present?

Before enacting laws like TADA or POTA, our ruling elite should have taken into account the prevailing police culture, when the communalisation of the police is a matter of concern and when men in uniform have given ample demonstration of their ideological leanings, laws like POTA are dangerous tools in their hands. Today when fake encounters and custodial deaths are on the rise, continuation of such laws will endanger democracy itself.

Our need is not POTA but impartial governance and police reforms. We have two million strong police force. This huge reservoir of manpower can do enormous good to the nation and society, provided they are utilised to serve the interests of the masses and not as an instrument to serve the interests of the elite and people in position of power. This is also essential for the establishment of good governance.

Efforts to combat terrorism are pitifully hamstrung by doublespeak from present government which aids the practice by turning a blind eye to the nefarious activities of several Hindutva organisations.

Terrorism is a scourge that needs to be eliminated. But at the same time the intention to combat terrorism cannot be allowed to be used as an excuse to impose draconian laws like POTA that curtail civil liberties and democratic rights. POTA is nothing but State terrorism and hence should be repealed at the earliest.
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