There are predictable calls this morning from within and outside India for that country to adopt tougher anti-terror laws in the wake of the Mumbai attacks. Australia’s anti-terror laws are cited as one possible model for the Indian government to consider. If India were to head down such a path it would just be a recipe for further terrorism in that country.

The debate over anti-terror laws in India is one that predates yesterday’s attacks. The opposition BJP has been relentlessly portraying Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress Party leaders Indira Gandhi and her son Rahul as being soft on terrorism because Mr. Singh’s government in 2004 repealed a draconian 2002 anti-terror law that shifted the burden of proof onto the accused, which led to the detention and killing of thousands of Muslims, a minority in India.

Interestingly, the repeal of the 2002 law has not made any noticeable difference to the number of terrorist incidents in India on a yearly basis. In 2003 there were 1597 incidents, in 2004 the figure was 1533, there were 1608 in 2005, 1509 in 2006 and 1565 in 2007.

The debate over anti-terror laws in India was recently given a renewed focus when the Administrative Review Commission (ARC), a government-appointed inquiry, reported in September this year and recommended the adoption of anti-terror laws along the lines of those which exist in Australia, Canada and the UK.

But not everyone agrees that giving the Indian prosecuting and security agencies the sort of draconian powers that are contained in the Australian, UK or Canadian laws is either necessary or wise.

In his scholarly 2006 book, The State, Democracy and Anti-terror Laws in India, Ujjwal Kumar Singh chronicles the long history of abuse by the Indian authorities of anti-terror laws and how their presence on the statute books has led to increased division within this complex society. Every time there is a significant terrorist attack in India, argues Singh, governments clamour to pass new laws. These laws are then used to sweep up dissidents, murder individuals and place political opponents in prison. The court system in India is riddled with chronic delay, so individuals can be placed in detention for years before their case is heard.

In 2002, for example, anti-terror laws were used by the State government of Gujarat to kill and injure thousands of Muslims in retaliation for a Muslim terrorist incident on a train.

And significantly, Singh notes that while the 2002 anti-terror law was repealed, many of its provisions found a new home in other Acts, so it is not true to argue as some commentators are, that India needs new anti-terror laws.

Anti-terror laws are the last thing a society needs if it is serious about eradicating the climate that breeds sympathy for the aims of terrorists and their activities. Anti-terror laws in Australia, the UK, Canada and other countries passed since 9/11 have been responsible for strident anti-Muslim feelings in communities and for abuse by police and security agencies of their powers. Why would India want to adopt laws that would make Muslims in their country an even greater target of prejudice and abuse?

Peter Fray

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