The debate in Parliament this week over the National Investigation Agency (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was instructive in understanding our lawmakers’ attitude to law not as an instrument against abuse of power and violence but more as a tool to legitimise the politics of national security and validate precisely such abuse. While the provisions of the amendment bill — which seeks to give the NIA extra territorial powers to probe cases of terrorism, cyber crimes, human trafficking and facilitate creation of special courts — are unobjectionable, what is disturbing is the farcical nature of the debate in both the Houses which culminated in a majority of the parties supporting its passage.
For Home Minister Amit Shah, it required very little effort to paint the Opposition, particularly the Congress, as having emasculated the Indian state in its fight against terrorism in its pursuit of “vote-bank”, a term that has replaced “appeasement politics” to connote favouring minorities. The Congress supported the amendment bill with only some of its MPs making peripheral references to the State’s encroachment of civil rights with extraordinary anti-terror legislation and the unprofessional manner in which investigations were carried on in the name of probing terrorism. Not one Member in any of the Houses thought it fit to mention the documented abuse of POTA and its predecessor, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), in targeting political opponents and minorities in the name of national security. These laws had to be repealed because they exemplified a complete departure from procedural fairness and Constitutional principles. In the case of TADA, 76,166 persons were arrested between 1985-1994. Of these, 18,708, i.e., 24.5 per cent, were discharged before the trial commenced. Of the 20,386 persons who were tried, as many as 19,543 were acquitted. Only four per cent of those tried under TADA were found guilty. Ironically it was the BJP which, in 2003, pointed out the spirit of “political vendetta” with which POTA was applied on opponents such as Raghuraj Pratap Singh alias Raja Bhaiyya who was famously arrested under the anti-terror law on the directions of the then Chief Minister Mayawati. The Congress-led UPA repealed POTA under compulsions of coalition politics, as alliance partner MDMK’s leader Vaiko had been booked under POTA. But POTA was replaced by the Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Act, 2004, which incorporated many special provisions of the repealed statute.
In the current polarised climate that hinges heavily on national security, few politicians feel emboldened enough to make a legitimate argument about the primary function of the law as balancing State power with individual rights. These were the arguments that won the Opposition, including the BJP’s eminent predecessors, the nation’s favour against the Emergency. Aping their oppressors does the ruling party little credit.