Debating India's anti-terror law
I spoke over the weekend at a roundtable organised by the Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre (PILSARC) in Delhi on anti-terrorism legislation in India. The panel was pretty huge and we had barely an hour between us, not to speak of giving time for comments from the audience. The discussion was pretty stormy. Speaking first against the government's recent amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan. He about the scope for abuse of the new law and noted how most people prosecuted by anti-terror laws were actually innocent. He was followed by Joginder Singh, the former head of the Central Bureau of Investigation. Singh attacked human rights organisations for being more concerned about the rights of terrorists than ordinary people and strongly defended the government's move.
I followed Singh by criticising the false dichotomy between concern for human rights and the need to fight terrorism. I suggested that the Indian police is ill-equipped to deal with terror not because of lack of law but because of its lack of equipment and intelligence, its non-scientific approach and over-reliance on "easy" methods of producing "results", namely torture and third-degree, which effectively traps innocent or marginal players while allowing the real bad guys to get away ...
Former Punjab police chief K.P.S. Gill followed me and launched another attack on NGOs and human rights folks. But he ended up saying he didn't see what good the new law would bring. Retired bureaucrat Bhure Lal then made a largely incoherent presentation in favour of tough laws and also said some odd things about India's majority and minority being "from a particular community". A (self-identified) Hindu member of the audience later took that reference for an attack on Muslims, which he denounced.
There was a heated and animated discussion with robust interventions from Rajeev Dhavan,KPS Gill and members of the audience. P.C. Sharma, another former CBI director and now member of the National Human Rights Commission, refreshingly endorsed the view that the police needs to get more professional and that equipping it with new laws may not be the best answer to the menace of terrorism.
All in all, it was good of PILSARC to get all of us in the same room. Most of the time, the two sides of the debate never get to engage with each other in this manner.