New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - Introduced against the backdrop of heightened post-Sept. 11 terrorist threats, a new anti-terrorism ordinance has unleashed a political row in India, with critics seeing it as a tool to target Muslims.
The Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) seeks to arm the authorities with sweeping powers to detect and prevent terrorist activities, detain suspects and freeze funds and properties held by them.
It was promulgated by a presidential decree in October, and must be approved by parliament within six months. However, with the government not commanding a majority in the upper legislature, passage of the law is far from assured.
Having made passage of the law an issue of prestige, the government said it would find a way out to bulldoze the law through.
In a change of tactic late Thursday, the government offered major amendments, dropping the operational period of the measure from five to three years, and scrapping a clause which critics said violated press freedom.
It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to enlist support for the law from opposition parties.
Security officials have been appalled by the opposition to the ordinance.
"Osama bin Laden and [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar have declared India as one of their targets," said Ajay Malhotra, a decorated officer in the Delhi Police anti-terrorism wing.
"We need a tougher law to freeze funds and intercept messages and tackle terrorism with an iron hand," he added.
One of the more controversial provisions required journalists to disclose to authorities sources of stories on terrorist-related organizations, but the government has now decided to drop it.
Similar laws in the past were later scrapped when found to have been misused by the government for political ends.
The 1987 Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act was scrapped in the 1990s, after a human rights commission found it was being misused and the rate of convictions under the law was lower than two percent.
Indian Law Minister Arun Jaitley maintained that POTO is a vast improvement over the 1987 law. It has safeguards against abuse of confession, and provisions for bail are less stringent than under the earlier laws, he argued.
Jaitley said POTO was modeled on anti-terrorism laws in countries like the United States and Britain.
Skeptics are not impressed by the argument, however. The All Party Hurriyat Conference, which has been spearheading the campaign for an independent Kashmir, is apprehensive that the new law will be used to discriminate against Muslims in the disputed territory.
A member of the organization, Bashir Ali, said anti-terrorism laws were fine in countries where an honest enforcement agency and independent judiciary exists.
The chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, Justice J.S. Verma, said certain provisions of POTO had the potential to be misused by enforcement agencies and posed serious threat to human rights.
He was particularly critical of clauses allowing security agencies to imprison suspects for a year without going to the courts, placing the onus on the accused to prove innocence. The law also provides for general immunity for any action taken in the course of an operation aimed at combating terrorism.
A noted Supreme Court lawyer, Kapil Sibal said the existing laws in India were tough enough to fight terrorism.
Since POTO was promulgated, the government has banned 25 organizations it accuses of terrorist activities, including militant groups fighting in Kashmir.
The controversy over POTO has acquired political dimensions. Opposition parties say the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party introduced the law without consulting them, and claim it was timed to clash with forthcoming elections in a northern state.
The opposition fears that the government could use POTO to stifle the minority Muslim community in Uttar Pradesh, who invariably vote en bloc during elections.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has held two all-party conferences to seek consensus on the law, but to no avail.