Terror Debate Seen as more vibrant in India than US

While governments in both the United States and India have a history of assuming more powers in perceived emergencies, New Delhi appears savvier about the consequences of such powers than Washington.

Such an inference can be drawn from the level and intensity of debate engendered in the two countries the level and intensity of the debate engendered in the two countries by India’s Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) and the America’s anti-terror legislations.

While the dialogue in India is more vociferous and the ideological divide sharper, the debate in the US is muted and the ideological lines are blurred.

Experts on India and rights activists note that the debates over the assumption of extra powers by New Delhi and Washington, supposedly in the face of growing terrorism, are very similar.

“This is a sensitive issue in both countries. The debate in India is very much the same as here,” said one India expert in the US, who did not wish to be identified.

“But in the US, such kind of powers were used long ago, during the Second World War,” he pointed out. In India, where similar laws, like the now-repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act—better known by its acronym TADA, have been on the statute books in the recent past.

The intellectual left and right in the US have come together to voice opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act (passed by Congress) and the military tribunals to try alleged terrorists (on its way to the books).

Rights activists say that the Sept. 11 tragedy has provided an opportunity, and even an excuse, for governments around the world to enact authoritarian legislation.

Smirta Narula, Asia coordinator at Human Rights Watch in New York—which has appealed the introduction of POTO in Parliament for ratification—said the reactions to Sept. 11 could be separated into two categories. “Some countries are using 9/11 to revise and revamp oppressive legislation. China and Uzbekistan are very good examples of that. In India’s case, it one of using this as an opportunity and the heightened national security concerns to push through POTO,” Narula maintained.

“POTO, despite the safeguards that the BJP has said are included, has provisions that make it as bad, or worse, than TADA,” Narula contended. “We are very, very concerned about many of the provisions.”

One provision allows for preventative detention of up to 3 months without any evidence or charges.

While it is still less than the six months allowed under the previous TADA, “it is still unacceptable to detain someone for so long without charges,” Narula emphasized.

There is also a clause in POTO that makes abetting a terrorist punishable, without spelling out the requisite intent. “So, it includes even someone who may have abetted without knowing.”

The India expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed that the laws in both countries provide additional leeway to arrest people without the writ of habeas corpus. He pointed to the popular support for the measures put on the books after Sept. 11.

“The debate here is more among the intellectuals. It’s the intellectual far left and far right that are opposing this.” The latest poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC shows that 81 percent of Americans support the Bush administration’s handling ofthe terrorist threat within the country.

But in India, the expert said, political parties were more immediate and vocal about their opposition to the anti-terror ordinance because of the experiences with such laws as TADA. “In the US, the memory of it is too far away,” he said. “But you have people with similar arguments in both countries appealing against it.”

Narula said that other aspects of POTO were a cause for concern. For example, bearing arms in a “notified” area is automatically considered terrorist activity. She also noted that journalists in India have attacked POTO as infringing on their rights because it places burdens on them to reveal any information they may get in the course of their professional work. “We do see a pattern here with the US legislation. India has had a long term national security concern, though in the US, it is a relatively new ball game,” she said. “In India, there is a concern that POTO may be used to target minorities the way TADA was used in the past.”

Under TADA, though more than 75,000 arrests took place, “only something like 1 percent were convicted,” she added. “Many of those targeted were Sikhs, Dalits, etc. The majority of the arrests were in Uttar Pradesh, which does not have a real terrorism problem. So POTO may do the same.”

Looking at what was happening under US’s antiterrorism regulations, Narula said, “The similarities between the two are there. There is a global pattern to enact legislation to curb liberties in the name of anti-terrorism.”

In the US, broad discretion has been given to law enforcement agencies to detain and even to define terrorism and terrorist activities, Human Rights Watch has said.

“We are very concerned about the military tribunals. The point we try to make on that is that US itself has been in a position of criticizing similar tribunals around the world, and is now taking steps to establish these kinds of tribunals in its own country,” Narula pointed out.

Attorney General John Ashcroft had already given some information about the detainees, and revealed their nationalities, but nothing else.

“But we do know that many of them are of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent, even though charges may have to do with immigration. So the fear is that they may be singled out by their national origin, and that they may not have access to due judicial process without more information about them,” Narula said.

The USA PATRIOT Act has just recently been passed, whereas India has a long history of antiterrorist laws, she said. “But we clearly have many concerns about foreign detainees in the US.”

According to Narula, the relative muteness of voices against the new anti-terror legislation in the US “is not so much out of fear, but rather because people keep looking at what is politically correct and not politically correct.”

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