Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said today that in the wake of random terrorist bombings, blamed on Sikh separatists, the government was considering enacting special antiterrorism laws.
While Gandhi did not specify what new provisions he was considering, he told the Indian Parliament that the government currently faced restrictions in swiftly apprehending terrorists and suggested that amendments to the law would be proposed in the next day or two.
He said while the government would be flexible in seeking a political solution to Sikh demands for increased autonomy, it was determined to be "tough" in combating terrorism.
In a 30-minute speech during a parliamentary discussion of the weekend wave of about 30 booby-trap bombings, which left at least 80 persons dead and more than 200 injured, Gandhi urged non-Sikhs against reacting "in a way they want us to react. The extremists want a backlash and the whole Sikh community to be alienated. This is what we should avoid."
Describing the bombings as "a new development and new level of operation," the prime minister warned that "terrorism comes up when there is a weakness. We must overcome this." He said he hoped his government would be able to remove "this cancer" from society.
Sounding a similar theme, Home Affairs Minister S.B. Chavan told the Parliament that the government was determined to "put down any violence or terrorist activity with a heavy hand," and that recent conciliatory gestures made in an attempt to seek a negotiated settlement to the Punjab crisis "should not be mistaken for weakness."
In his speech to Parliament, Gandhi referred obliquely to charges of involvement by Pakistan in the Sikh separatist movement, saying, "the fact is that foreign involvement is there. You know it. We know it. It does not help ignoring it. But there is no use giving too much importance to it."
Political observers said that while it was highly unlikely that Gandhi would propose legislation even approaching the Draconian "emergency" measures adopted by his mother and predecessor, Indira Gandhi, during civil unrest in 1975, during which civil rights were suspended and thousands of political opponents were jailed, provisions of the Antiterrorism Act currently in force in the embattled state of Punjab and in the turbulent region in far northeastern India could be extended to other states not yet officially declared as "disturbed areas."
Those provisions, amended last year, give police and paramilitary security forces broad powers in making preventive arrests, restricting public movement, restraining public assembly and controlling the press. More than 1,000 Sikhs have been arrested in northern India during the past two days as a result of the bombings.
Following a meeting yesterday of the Cabinet's political affairs committee, headed by Gandhi, the Indian Express newspaper reported today that the committee's ministers had noted that the government had been "flooded with demands for special legal and administrative measures" to stem the rise of terrorism.