Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government assumed wide-ranging powers of preventive detention today to curb lawlessness, and in so doing has revived memories of Gandhi's previous harsh, authoritarian rule that saw at least 100,000 of her political opponents jailed. a
The ordinance allows state or national governments to jail for as long as 12 months citizens and foreigners who they feel pose a threat to India's security or public order. It can also be used against black marketeers and horaders, and to stop labor unrest.
In a press release issued late last night announcing the new National security Ordinance that went into effect today, the government said preventive detention was needed to combat Hindu-Moslem riots, caste conflicts and "increasing tendencies on the part of various interested parties to engineer agitation on different issues."
In a follow-up ordinance announced today, the government placed itself in a position to control press coverage by giving district magistrates the power to prosecute anyone charged with material that is judged to create communal ill will. Previously this power was restricted to state and central governments.
The new measure also tightens bail provisons for so-caled habitual criminals.
In what appeared to be obvious references to nearly a year of unrest in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, which supplies much of the country's oil, the government cited a "secessionist movement" along with groups that "even hold the society to ransom" as reasons for the preventive detention law.
It was unclear to observers here, however, why the government chose this time to put forth the strong new law, which carries the onus of the notorious Maintenance of International Security ACT (MISA) that Gandhi used during the 17 months of her emergency rule that ended with her humiliating election defeat in March 1977.
The excesses of the emergency are generally cited as the reason that she was out of power for 33 months until she regained her seat as prime minister with an overwhelming victory last December.
Moreover, Hindu-Moslem riots that spread through the country last month appear not to be on the wane, and it looks as if the dispute over Assam, which cut its supply of oil to the rest of the country, is nearing a solution.
Although prices remain high and a scarcity of sugar is blamed on hoarding and profiteering, the Gandhi-controlled Parliament enacted a preventive detention law in January aimed at curbing this type of economic crime.
Some observers here felt that the Gandhi administration -- which in a play on its campaign promise to be "the government that works" was called in one magazine article "the government that shirks" -- assumed the powers of preventive detention now to impress the country that it means business, and will use its power against lawless elements.
There has been some comment in the press here that Gandhi is deliberately allowing inflation, communal violence and caste strife to smolder to build up the case for the reimposition of emergency measures.
Some opposition politicians and civil libertarians attacked the new detention ordinance. Subramaniyan Swamy, general secretary of the opposition Janata Party, called it "unnecessary, and an admission of complete failure of the Gandhi government. Another opposition leader, Madhu Limaye, the Lok Dal Party general secretary, said he feared it would be used against opponents of the Gandhi government as a similar law was used in the past.
"This is a very dangerous portent," said attorney Soli Sorabjee, a civil liberties attorney who was solicitor general in the Janata government that overthrew Gandhi in 1977 and who led the prosecution of members of her administration on charges of excesses committed under her emergency rule.
"There is no reason for believing that it will not be abused as it was in the past," he continued.
He and diplomatic observers here agreed that the act lays the ground work for the declaration of a new state of emergency proclamation that could lead to persons being jailed by minor police officials for up to a year without any trial.
"It's our MISA under another name," Sorabjee said.
The security pact was put into force in 1971, four years before Gandhi proclaimed an emergency, but was put into force in 1971, four years before Gandhi proclaimed an emergency, but was repealed by Parliament in 1978 when the Janata government took power.
New reforms put in since Gandhi's defeat in 1977 make it harder to impose emergency rule, which is now allowed only in the case of external threats or armed rebellion inside the country. Other reforms ensure some judicial review -- but not full trials -- for those picked up under preventive detention laws.
So far today, no political opponents have been jailed under the new ordinance. When Gandhi declared the emergency, police immediately began rounding up thousands of opposition politicians.
Nonetheless, Sorabjee said there is no present need for new preventive detention ordinances, which he called "a necessary evil" in cases of external threats.
Instead, he called today's ordinance "a clear confession of failure. There is no emergency in the country, no civil insurrection or civil war.
"It is plainly due to the fact the government has not been able to do its bit in the field of law and order, and on the economic front as far as prices are concerned. It is a typical move to cover up its clear failure to deal with these situations."