By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 18, 2008
NEW DELHI, Dec. 17 -- Responding to soaring public anger about security lapses before the Mumbai attacks last month, the lower house of India's Parliament on Wednesday approved tough anti-terrorism legislation and a plan to set up a national investigative agency.
Lawmakers debated and passed two key measures, the National Investigating Agency Bill and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendments Bill, which would facilitate investigation and prosecution of terrorism suspects. The bills head to the upper house, perhaps as soon as Thursday; they are expected to pass easily.
"You have captured the mood of the nation. The nation expects Parliament to pass these laws today and restore their confidence," Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the lawmakers after several hours of debate. When he presented the legislation in the morning, he said he was appealing to the lawmakers with "folded hands" to pass the bills in a bipartisan manner.
Chidambaram later acknowledged that the legislation would be unlikely to prevent attacks. "For a jihadi terrorist, this is no deterrent," he said. "He comes here to die, he comes here to kill. These laws give a sense of confidence to the people that criminals will be punished. All these are punitive laws and not preventive laws."
Passage of anti-terrorism legislation had assumed urgency in India after the Mumbai rampage, in which 10 gunmen laid siege to the city for three days, killing more than 170 people and wounding more than 230 in attacks on two luxury hotels, a restaurant, a train station, a Jewish outreach center and other sites.
India has blamed the outlawed Pakistan-based Islamist group Lashkar-i-Taiba for the attacks and has asked the government in Islamabad to crack down on organizations fomenting terrorism against India. Pakistan has offered to participate in an investigation with India and has detained some Lashkar leaders of in the past few days.
The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars since the Indian subcontinent gained independence from Britain in 1947. The Mumbai assault and the subsequent war of words have profoundly damaged the bilateral peace process.
Since the attacks, India has announced plans for a comprehensive overhaul of its security forces and the strengthening of coastal patrols and intelligence agencies.
The left-of-center government led by the Congress party had earlier scrapped an anti-terrorism law because of the sweeping and potentially abusive powers it conferred. But after the Mumbai attacks, the government came under intense public pressure to enact a similar law.
Lawmakers passed the legislation Wednesday with disagreements reminiscent of earlier debates.
Many argued against measures that would stifle the constitutional rights of the accused. Some said that existing laws are adequate to address terrorism and that the police should not be given freedom to operate without accountability. Others said the laws might be used to unfairly target India's 130 million-strong Muslim minority.
"We have tried to accommodate the opinions and suggestions of different political parties and sections such as lawyers and jurists to draft the bills," Chidambaram said, adding that he had tried to strike a "fair balance."
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) legislation would increase the period that suspects could be detained from 90 to 180 days and seeks to choke the financial pipelines of groups suspected of abetting terrorism. But it also would make the signed confessions of suspects in police custody inadmissible in court, a deterrent against coercive methods often used during interrogation. It also would give courts the power to decide bail in some cases.
"Despite the enormous public pressure, the government has done a tightrope walk by ensuring necessary legal safeguards. It is a firm but measured response just three weeks after the Mumbai attacks," said Mahesh Rangarajan, an independent political analyst. "Indian political leadership is saying, 'We mean business,' but it is also saying, 'We will not let the police run amok in its hunt for the enemy.' "
The government also proposed setting up a national agency, along the lines of the FBI, to investigate and prosecute offenses "affecting the sovereignty, security and integrity" of the country. Such an agency was opposed earlier by state governments for fear that their legal powers would be diluted. But officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi said the investigative agency approved Wednesday would improve coordination among regional law enforcement officials against terrorist groups that have spread across the country in recent months.
The leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, L.K. Advani, supported the new legislation but also reprimanded the Congress-led coalition government for getting rid of the earlier anti-terrorism law. The BJP has traditionally advocated a tough approach to terrorists and has accused the Congress of being weak-kneed on the issue.
But some lawmakers continued to express misgivings.
"Democracy must not be impaired while fighting terrorism," said Gurudas Dasgupta of the Communist Party of India. "One hundred and eighty days of detention without a charge sheet. Is it conducive to democratic principles?"
Dasgupta said his party had opposed the bill with a "heavy heart," noting that "making the state a police state is too dangerous."