The Ansal Plaza incident continues to make news. Allegations and counter-allegations cloud the picture, and it may take a while before facts are sorted out from fabrications. One thing is however clear: the police version need not be considered as gospel truth. Fake encounters are a tradition handed down to the Indian police from British days: revolutionary patriots, dubbed by the authorities as “terrorists”, were fair game to black-and-tan veterans who had been recruited to the Indian police force.
They are long gone; not their mod- alities. What happened in West Bengal in the early Seventies is still fresh at least in some memories. Not all the People’s War Group partisans reported to have been killed in face-to-face encounters have died quite in the way described; some slimy manoeuvres took place now and then. Maybe the Khalistanis were despicably wayward ideologues, but the way they were butcher- ed by special police contingents in Punjab in the late Eighties and the early Nineties still sends shivers down the spine of many thousand householders in the state. Finally, the less said about the exploits of the army occupying Jammu and Kashmir, perhaps so much the better.
Against this background, what is surprising is not the petition filed with the National Human Rights Commission by two prominent journalists urging an investigation of the Ansal Plaza episode, but the reaction of one of the general secretaries of the party currently ruling the country. The person concerned was the nation’s law minister till the other day. He is seething with anger, the journalists had no business to go to the NHRC and thereby provide respectability to the airy-fairy allegation which claims that those whom the police described as dangerous terrorists armed with deadly weapons were actually a couple of unarmed, innocents kids.
The conduct of the journalists, according to the former law minister, is beyond contempt; what do you know, their representation has made headlines in Pakistani newspapers the very next day. The two journalists, the general secretary of the ruling party has almost implied, are traitors to the country, or worse.
This gentleman, the former law minister, deserves to be told the facts of life. We are not officially at war with Pakistan. The party the po-litician belongs to may love to declare Pakistan as India’s perennial enemy; other countrymen may not subscribe to the view, and even oppose it. Therefore the happenstance that statements issued by some citizens in this country are bound to be used by Pakistanis to their advantage cannot be advanced as reason for ordering these citizens to keep their mouths shut.
This particular general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party has to be taught a few other lessons as well. He is a busybody and opinions spout from him like daffodils sprouting in the ground in springtime. Since the Prevention of Terrorism Act is now a part of the country’s statute, all state governments, the gentleman has thundered, have the obligation to implement it and put undesirable people behind the bars without trial; no reasons are to be supplied except for the vague one of indulging in activities prejudicial to the interests of the country; the activities may remain unproved. The former law minister has just stopped short of threatening state governments who decline to use with abandon the POTA with dismissal under Article 355 or Article 356 of the Constitution.
The politician in question is a confused specimen. He may be a lawyer, but his legal acumen is obviously being subdued by his political allegiance. The POTA is a Central legislation; it is only an enabling legislation though. A state government may avail itself of the POTA to detain a person without trial. The discretion however lies with the state government. It is because the all-too-comprehensive ambit of the Central act is disliked by them, that a numbers of state governments have passed separate, slightly more restrictive legislations, spelling out the exact charges that must be posted before somebody’s liberty could be taken away.
A few other state governments have gone even beyond. They abhor in principle the concept of detention without trial and refuse to apply the POTA in their respective states. Yet another ground reality can hardly be overlooked. The BJP may nurture a propensity for authoritarianism even greater than what Indira Gandhi had nurtured some thirty years ago. But it does not have the clout to ride rough- shod over the entire country. The former law minister should therefore watch his words. No question that he is bright and articulate, but he does not have the carte blanche to transmit warnings, formal or informal, to this or that state administration reluctant to court the ugly POTA damsel.
This is where a further issue crops up. Should a state government take at face value each and every information supplied by a Central police or intelligence authority' The British had established, in the pre-independence era, a basically unitary police administration to serve their imperial interests. They have left more than half a century ago, and the country is supposed to be under the domain of a written Constitution. In terms of the Constitution, the maintenance of law and order comes under the orbit of the states and the Centre has no business to have a separate police set-up.
In the name of over-all surveillance of national security, however, several Central establishments have come up, such as the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Force and so on. There are, in addition, the Central Intelligence Bureau and the Research and Analyses Wing breathing down the neck of state governments. These agencies keep feeding daily bits of reports concerning espionage activities inside and along the borders of the country.
A tendency exists in state police apparatuses to attribute one hundred per cent veracity to such reports furnished by Central agencies. Many senior police officials at the state level look up in awe to the bosses of the Central intelligence and police administration. Several of them aspire to prize posts in New Delhi and would therefore desperately like to be on the right side of Union government outfits and their officials. It has therefore almost become a habit with quite a few state governments to believe as genuine tidings, concocted or otherwise, from the Central agencies.
True, it is no easy task to go against the grain. The BJP-National Democratic Alliance government is a staunch believer in George W. Bush’s lovely war against terrorism. It will not, for example, lift its littlest finger if, in its holy goal to get hid of Saddam Hussein, the American administration chooses to liquidate the entire Iraqi population. For the Hindutva lobby cherishes a fond hope on the sideline: the United States of America will be so good as to give the same treatment to Pakistan as it proposes to dish out to Iraq.
The phenomenon of cross-border intrusion in Kashmir is evidently not being reckoned as enough by the Americans. It may be the idlest of wishes; still, wishes can occasionally be horses. To additionally convince the Americans what the Pakistanis are conspiring to do in India, the present government in New Delhi is perhaps quite capable of using its police and intelligence network to plant stories about infiltration by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Some of these stories may have some basis; some others may have none.
The government of Pakistan, for all one can surmise, is wont to return the compliments, thereby increasing once again the state of the feverishness of Indian intelligence agencies. Foreign agents, including those are, it will be let out, swarming all over the country. At the next stage, the Union government may direct a state government to arrest under the POTA, and keep in indefinite detention such and such persons reported against by a Central agency.
Authoritarianism, specially when combined with religious fundamentalism, presents itself in the garb of many instruments and designs. One blatant design is of course the POTA. Not to beat about the bush, another one is the spate of intelligence reports gushing out from Central sources. A state government in this country must guard against both dangers if it wants to preserve the rights and prerogatives given unto it by the Constitution of India. And in all this melee, the essential issue tends to get lost: while what is described as terror begets counter-terror, the latter too is equally counter-productive.
Post-script: Now that the POTA prisoners are being released by the newly-installed Jammu and Kashmir government, what does the former law minister propose to advise his seniors; dismiss straightaway Mufti Mohamm- ed Sayeed'