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The Hindu on : Draconian shades

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, January 21, 2001

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Draconian shades

A new law in Madhya Pradesh gives the police wide-ranging powers to curb dissent in the name of combating terrorism. KALPANA SHARMA, with inputs from LALIT SHASTRI, examines the issue.

GOVERNMENTS RARELY imitate one another, particularly if they are politically on opposite sides. Yet the Congress Government in Madhya Pradesh, led by the redoubtable Mr. Digvijay Singh, appears to be taking more than a leaf or two out of the book of its neighbour Andhra Pradesh led by the cyber-savvy Mr. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam. Not only does Mr. Singh hope to demonstrate that his State is as ready for privatisation and IT as his neighbour's but that he will not hesitate to pass tough laws even if he is accused of suppressing human rights in the name of ``progress''.

On the lines of a law that already exists in Andhra Pradesh, the Digvijay Government has come up with the Madhya Pradesh Special Areas Security Bill, 2000, which gives the police and district administrators wide-ranging powers to curb dissent in the name of combaying terrorism. At least, this is how more than half a dozen leading activist group in Madhya Pradesh like to interpret the motivation behind the passing of the law. The Government, on the other hand, insists it is completely justified in taking steps to curb naxalism which it claims is spilling over the borders of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra into Madhya Pradesh.

This may have been true last year. But today, the area adjacent to Andhra Pradesh is now part of the new Chhatisgarh State where the new law will not apply. Nor is there any move by the new Government in that State to pass such a law in the immediate future. Where the law will most likely be applied is in areas close to the Maharashtra border. But even here, the naxalite- dominated areas in Maharashtra such as Chandrapur and Gadchiroli districts are now adjacent to Chhatisgarh.

The MP Special Areas Security Bill, 2000, was passed on November 27 almost unnoticed. It awaits the President's assent before it becomes operational. There was practically no opposition to it from any of the political parties. Even the BJP in the State has not opposed the law. On the contrary, it has accused the Government of not being determined enough to implement such a law. The Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, Dr. Gauri Shankar Shejwar, was highly critical of the Bill but not from the human rights perspective. He said: ``There is a wide gap between the Bill and the Government's will to implement it in letter and spirit''. Another BJP MLA commented sarcastically, ``The Bill is only a facade since all powers are already available with the law-enforcing agencies to act against those who have defied the Constitution. If the problem of terrorism could be solved merely by imposing a ban, the Government could even think of bringing down the crime graph by banning murders, thefts and rapes.''

The police, not surprisingly, have welcomed the additional powers. They have been the prime targets of the naxalite groups. Police stations have been raided, police vehicles have been blown up. Not long ago, the State Transport Minister, Mr. Likhiram Kavre, was killed, allegedly by naxalites, in his village in Balaghat district bordering Maharashtra. The law will give the police at the district level wide- ranging powers to ban organisations and prosecute even those supporting such organisations.

Activists groups, however, assert that such powers already exist with the Government and that there is no need for an additional law that has the potential to be misused against genuine groups and organisations working for social justice. In an appeal which has been sent to the President and the National Human Rights Commission, a coalition of activists groups which includes the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan from Hoshangabad, the Shramik Adivasi Sangathan from Betul, the Narmada Bachao Andolan from Badwani, the Ekta Parishad from Bhopal and the Khedyut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan from Jhabua, has expressed serious apprehension that the law, if approved, could be used against any group peacefully opposing Government policies.

These groups suspect that the districts where the law could be used are primarily Betul and Hoshangabad where several groups have been organising adivasis and displaced communities. According to an activist, the State Government has claimed that these areas are being used by naxalites for ``rest and recreation''. As a result, these groups fear that the law will be used to suppress their activities in the name of putting down naxalism.

In the adivasi-dominated forest areas of Betul, for instance, there has been strong resistance over several years to the World Bank- funded Madhya Pradesh Forestry project which has prevented poor tribals from cultivating what are known as ``newad'' lands, or untitled lands. Clashes with the police in some areas have resulted in deaths and injuries to the protesters.

Under the new law, any group can be banned if it is seen to be obstructing law and order. Of the several reasons given for banning organisations, only one refers directly to the use of violence. The rest are general terms such as disturbing the peace, provisions that already exist in law. Under the new law, the Government need not give any reasons for banning a group or an organisation and the affected group will not be given the chance to argue against the ban before it is imposed. Its only recourse, once such a ban is imposed, is to move the courts. These groups argue that the law could be used ``against those working to protect the basic human rights of the common people''.

Amongst the groups questioning the law is the NBA which has been opposing the privately-funded Maheshwar dam. As a result of its opposition, several potential funders have pulled out of the project. At a time when the Madhya Pradesh Government is trying to attract private capital for infrastructure projects, such opposition is necessarily viewed as obstructionist. Therefore, the NBA apprehends that such a law could be used against activists who have been putting up a peaceful resistance to the dam.

The groups opposing the law have stepped up their public protests against it and earlier this week a couple of hundred representatives of these groups protested in Bhopal and courted arrest. They chose a day when the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister had convened a meeting of representatives of multilateral and bilateral agencies which are funding projects in the State. These included the British Minister for Overseas Development, Ms. Claire Short. From the tone of these demonstrations, it is evident that the State Government's hope that such a law could be slipped through quietly, will not be realised.

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