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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Do we need stringent anti-terror laws to fight terrorism ?

Posted by: danish Ahmed 7:44 PM

Serial bomb blasts in Delhi have left the nation shocked, betrayed and angry coming on the heels of similar attacks in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. The reaction from all quarters is as predictable as it could be. Everyone except the perpetrators have condemned the attack, the government has appealed for calm and has vowed to bring the guilty to book, citizens are outraged at how unsafe they are under the government's watch, BJP the main opposition party says its charges against the current government of being soft on terrorism stands vindicated and it reiterates its demand for stringent anti-terror laws. The media is having a field day reporting facts, speculations, opinions, counter-opinions and more importantly the visuals. Everything is going according to the plan. The plan, that the perpetrators might have had when they conceived this inhuman ploy. All major cities have now been put on high-alert, the common people feel unsafe, normal life has been disrupted and the spokespersons of the government and the main opposition hurl charges at each other on the national TV. If the objective of terrorism is to destabilize society by creating panic and distrust among the members then the terrorists have most likely achieved their objective in this instance. In a few days from now when the nation limps back to life, some terrorists will strike again sending us into yet another phase of fear, panic, anger, charges and counter-charges. This cycle of mindless violence has been going on now for a while and there seems to be no reason to believe that it is going to be stopped anytime soon.


What fuels my pessimism is the belief that no one is really interested in stopping these attacks. Whether they want it or not, political parties and the media stand to gain from these attacks, it is citizen who loses but even then there is little display of fighting spirit in the citizenry. Demand for stringent anti-terror laws reflects the citizenry's desire for retribution rather than finding a long lasting solution.In one of my earlier post on "Open Source Terrorism" i have discussed on the changing pattern of terror attacks in India which indicate that local terror modules may be emulating global terrorist networks based on a violent and distorted form of Islamic ideology. These groups are different from traditional militant groups we have come across in Kashmir, Punjab and the North-East that have a fixed and coherent agenda. The 4GW groups on the other hand are loosely affiliated global terrorist network that wants to overthrow the world order. This enemy is far more dangerous because the only agenda it has is destruction of the civil society by introducing chaos and distrust.It uses the society's greatest strength against society itself, which in our case is freedom and civil rights. How do we fight an enemy who emerges from amongst us and blends back into the society after executing his evil design? Do we abandon our cherished values, suspend rights and turn ourselves into a police state? What then will the difference be between the terrorist groups and civil society?


This moral dilemma is also the central theme of recently released and hugely popular movie, “the Dark Knight". The central character in plot is not the Batman himself but the anarchist, psychopath villain called the Joker. The Joker personifies absolute evil, he exists without a name, without a past and more importantly he operates without any logical motive. Unlike other villains, the Joker is not motivated by the lust of money or power, he is an agent of chaos and he seems to be on a mission to prove that all people turn to evil when pushed hard. The battle between him and the Batman is a battle of wills, the Joker constantly creates situations that leave Batman in ethical dilemma, he challenges Batman to defeat evil without becoming a part of it. And it is not the Batman alone who is tested, towards the end the Joker recreates a grotesque enactment of the "prisoner's dilemma" which results in a situation where a ferry full of citizens and another carrying convicts have to destroy each other to prevent the Joker from destroying them. If either of them succumb to his threat and blow up their fellow humans they become evil themselves justifying the Joker's philosophy of anarchy and hate. The people in the two ferries do not succumb to the Joker's plan but the district attorney, Harvey Dent does. Dent is the face of Gotham's civil society fighting crime without sacrificing civility. The greatest victory of the Joker is the conversion of Dent, the white knight of Gotham into a dark vigilante who kills criminals for revenge. From the ethical point of view there is hardly any difference between the Joker and Dent (who becomes Two-Face).


We face a similar situation while dealing with anarchist terrorists who like the Joker, provoke us to shed our civility, violate social contract and come down to their level. Inherent weakness in our law, especially the criminal law is almost an article of faith for most ordinary Indians. It is this belief that always leads to cries for measures that are harsher even if they are not just. An important element of criminal jurisprudence of all progressive civil societies is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty which implies that the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. In anti-terror laws like POTA the principle applied is the presumption of guilt which implies that the person charged has to produce evidence of his/her innocence. Frankly, i think it defies logic.The very concept of Law exists for the administration of justice but in some instances criminal laws are used to extract revenge and gain political mileage. The BJP has been vociferously criticizing the government for its soft approach but as all of us know it is just trying to fish in troubled water. Let us not forget the fact that it was during the NDA reign that two of the biggest terror attacks took place (Parliament attack and IC-814 hijack) and the then BJP government had proved itself as toothless as it is accusing the Congress now. In the IC-814 hijack episode the BJP Foreign Minister escorted some of the most dreaded terrorists to Kandhar. However, the predicament that the NDA government faced then is understandable, civil society and state have certain responsibilities towards citizens which puts it in disadvantage during negotiations in hostage crisis like this one. But if the BJP itself has in the past given in to terrorists' demands in order to protect citizens and their rights why would it now insist imposing restriction on rights of citizens in the name of fighting terrorism?


The answer is pretty simple; the latest episode gives the opposition a stick to beat the Congress government with. Besides that the brand of politics that the BJP practices, not only exploits fear and anger of the people but also reinforces them. The Sangh Parivar has nearly perfected the art of transforming the discontentment of people to hatred towards other communities and in the process consolidating its own voter base. The BJP has in the past managed to counter the anger of the people (mostly belonging to majority community) by not pursuing the perpetrators but punishing their community members. The message sent out to its supporters is that the government is fighting terrorism but in reality it is punishing a section of its own citizenry to placate the anger of the majority. Incarceration of innocent people under POTA by the Modi government in Gujarat in 2002 is a well-known example of how anti-terror laws are exploited by governments pursuing their antagonistic and communal agenda. Presently, the very fact that the demand for stringent anti-terror is being led by Modi, indicates that the objective is to take revenge by punishing the community members of the alleged terrorists and not go after the culprits themselves. Any doubt regarding fairness in implementation of these laws is removed when we look into recent past. As far as i know none of the key suspects of previous attacks have been arrested yet but hundreds of innocent citizens were incarcerated with the help of these draconian laws. Further, activists of groups like Bajrang Dal have always indulged in activities which clearly come under the purview of anti-terror laws but far from being held under anti-terror laws they actually enjoy state patronage.


Apart from the moral and the political question, introduction of harsher laws would also raise questions regarding the efficiency of such measures. For instance, this demand would imply that there have been instances when perpetrators major terrorist attacks have been let free because of technical loop holes. But as far as my memory serves me most of the attackers and conspirators are either absconding or had died during the attacks. In instances when they have been caught appropriate punishments have been awarded to them. If terrorists have not been apprehended or appropriately punished then it is mostly because the police were not up to the task and not because of lenient laws.

Stricter laws also imply investing more power in law enforcement agencies which raises the probability of it being abused by corrupt policemen and their political masters. This will not be a new trend in India, for decades law enforcement agencies are notorious for abusing laws for selfish reasons. I do not fully comprehend why law-makers want to grant the police provision to use more brute force when one of the problems of our civil society is the excessive use of brute force by the police. If at all the law-makers want to make law enforcement more effective, they should allocate more resources and funds to the force to increase its efficiency.


To eliminate the malaise of terrorism the first step would be to launch a political initiative that addresses grievances at the grass-root level. Citizen need to come forward and shun all forms of parochial and divisive doctrines, be it communalism, regionalism or casteism. The primary loyalty of all sections of the population should lie with the national identity. Stringent anti-terror laws are not mantras the incantations of which will drive away terrorism magically; it is the law enforcement machinery that needs to be well-oiled and upgraded. Arrests of some of the perpetrators of Delhi serial blasts reinforces the belief that existing laws are sufficient to counter terrorism as long as the administration doesn't lack the will to fight. It also reveals that the attackers are mostly anarchists whose objective is to damage the social fabric and provoke us into abandoning our value system. Instead of reacting with anger, we should find out ways to detect and eliminate anarchists from our midst without shedding our civility.


We can't let the Joker have the last laugh!

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