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Equality before the law?

by, 19 December 2008

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Herald, Panjim, 18 Dec 2008


No lessons seem to be have learnt by the central government from the experiences with terrorism over the past few years. On 16 December, the central government tabled two laws in Parliament – one to set up an FBI-style National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the other to amend the law to bring in more stringent provisions to deal with terror crimes. Nobody can object to the NIA, but the latter law has many provisions similar to draconian laws (now repealed) like TADA and POTA, two laws which were misused extensively, but produced so few convictions of terrorists, that any objective assessment would have classified them as practically useless. The new proposed law, broadens the definition of terror acts to cover violence related to militancy, insurgency and left-wing extremism, but significantly leaves out engineered communal riots, like the recent ones against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka.

Special laws like the Chhattisgarh Special Powers Act, meant to fight Naxalism, have been used to victimise and intimidate anybody who dares to speak up for the poor. This is seen in the case of Dr Binayak Sen, who has been languishing in jail for over 20 months without any convincing evidence of any kind having been presented against him. This is not a problem existing only outside Goa. In a shocking incident on 16 December, the police rounded up 88 teenage girls and six teachers from a madrasa in Vasco and took them to the police station since their identity verification forms had not been submitted in time. It is not as if the madrasa was an unknown one – some of its trustees are respected businessmen locally. The police could easily have contacted them and asked them to complete the procedures. Instead, they acted in a high-handed and insensitive fashion against teenage girls, who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered terrorists.

Would one be very wrong if one were to conclude that this was done only because the institution in question happened to be a madrasa? One would like to know whether the police have asked for these forms from all schools in Goa which have ‘outsiders’ studying in them. If any such school had not complied in time, would the police have dragged all the students to the police station? Or is this kind of behaviour reserved only for Muslim institutions and those which cater to the lower socio-economic classes? Selective actions like this raise suspicions among the minorities that the police have communal and class biases.

Ever since the Mumbai terror strikes, the police have been conducting raids in colonies housing migrant labourers, and rounding up large numbers of them. But how many middle- and upper-class migrants, of whom there are so many in Goa, have been asked to fill up these identity verification forms? The police cannot claim that these socio-economic groups are not terror risks – there have been plenty of highly educated terrorists, as well as those who have come from affluent backgrounds.

Has the Goa Police asked the Sanatan Sanstha Ashram in Ramnathi, Ponda, to submit these forms for all its inmates? Some of the activists of this organisation were arrested earlier this year for their involvement in the Thane bomb blasts. Have any investigations been carried out on its activities? Or does the Goa Police believe, like the RSS, that Hindus, by definition, cannot be terrorists? Communal profiling of all Muslims as ‘terrorists’ since the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts has created among them a deep sense of alienation from the mainstream. And, when the police behave like this, it only leads Muslims to conclude that the system is deeply biased against them, and that they cannot expect justice from it. Terror must be fought resolutely, but also sensitively. Framing draconian laws that are then used to selectively target minorities and the poor only builds a fertile breeding ground for creating terrorism, rather than eradicating it. Our laws must respect the human rights enshrined in the Constitution of India. They must be applied firmly, sensitively and even-handedly. That is the only way to take on terror and effectively fight it, in the long run.