It is a law that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had claimed would be the best solution to tackle terrorist activities in the country.
Ever since the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or POTA as it is better known, came into force in June 2002, the law, along with the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, was hailed as India's boldest initiative to fight terrorists, disband terror outfits, and choke their funding.
But 22 months down the line, human rights activists and Opposition politicians claim that POTA has become more a means to terrorise innocents than to fight terror. Even the Supreme Court of India has observed that the law is being misused in some cases.
Dismissing three appeals on Monday, March 8, by the Tamil Nadu government against the power of the central POTA Review Committee to look into the validity of some detention orders, the apex court said it is the panel's duty to review such detentions.
George Iype and Ehtasham Khan take a long, hard look at the controversial law.
POTA is a special law meant to deal with terrorists, not ordinary criminals," Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani said recently.
But almost two years after India enacted the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act, the country's anti-terrorism drive hasn't gone along the lines Advani must have hoped for.
According to the Union home ministry, 702 people have so far been arrested under POTA across the country.
Who are these people who have been detained under a strict law aimed at those who 'threaten the unity, integrity, security or sovereignty of India or to strike terror in the people or any section of the people', a law that allows the detention of suspects for up to six months without trial?
The ministry's records reveal that most of those arrested are poor agricultural workers, Dalits, landless tribals, farmers, students, revolutionaries, Naxalites, and villagers who support Naxalite groups.
The most high-profile detention under POTA has been that of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader and Member of Parliament V Gopalasamy aka Vaiko. Ironically, Vaiko and his party were vociferous supporters of POTA in Parliament. For his troubles, Vaiko ended up spending nearly 20 months in Vellore central jail in his home state Tamil Nadu.
The home ministry's records say the youngest 'terrorist' arrested under POTA is Gaya Singh, 12, and the oldest is Rajnath Mahato, 81, both from Jharkhand. The Jharkhand government claims that both were arrested for supporting Naxalites.
Jharkhand, India's 28th state carved out of 18 impoverished districts of Bihar in 2000, has achieved a dubious distinction over the last two years: it has seen the largest number of arrests under POTA. According to the Union home ministry, 234 people have been arrested in the state.
Jammu and Kashmir, which has been plagued by terrorism, is second with 181 arrests.
Other states where arrests have been made under POTA are: Gujarat (83), Delhi (44), Maharashtra (42), Tamil Nadu (41), Andhra Pradesh (40), Uttar Pradesh (28), Sikkim (6), and Himachal Pradesh (3). The home ministry has also banned as many as 32 organisations under the law.
But human rights activists who have been following up on POTA cases say the official figures are unreliable. "In fact," says Mukundan C Menon, secretary of the Confederation of Human Rights Organisations, "the Union home ministry does not have the total figure of POTA arrests across the country because many state governments have not sent their figures."
Menon says the tragedy is that it is not just terrorists who are scared of POTA; "it is the country's politicians, farmers, poor labourers, and students who are at the receiving end."
Under section 18 of POTA, the central government can list any group as a terrorist organisation not only for committing acts of terrorism but also for 'promoting' or 'encouraging' terrorism or terrorist groups. Thus, Vaiko's MDMK and the Pattali Makkal Katchi led by Dr S Ramadoss are liable to be banned for their open support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka.
If another party or coalition replaces the National Democratic Alliance in New Delhi after the general election, it can similarly unleash POTA on groups like the Bajrang Dal. In that case, many Bajrang Dal, Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders will also languish in jail like Vaiko.
Communist Party of India General Secretary A B Bardhan argues that the Vajpayee government has achieved 'nothing' with POTA. "We have been asking the government to name the terrorists it has detained," he says. "It is petty criminals and sympathisers of a particular cause that the government has detained under this draconian law."
Bardhan says POTA is very much like its predecessor, the much abused and now lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985. Under TADA, tens of thousands of politically motivated detentions, acts of torture, and other human rights violations were committed against Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, trade union activists, and political opponents of the central and state governments in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Home ministry officials, however, say not one complaint of misuse of POTA has been received. A report submitted by the ministry to the Lok Sabha last year pointed out that even Vaiko had not complained. 'Everyone says POTA has been misused against political opponents,' Minister of State for Home Ch Vidyasagar Rao told the House. 'But till today our ministry has not got any complaints.'
MDMK Chairman L Ganesan says the party supported the enactment of POTA because it was deemed a law to fight terrorists. "But now we have realised that it is a law to destroy honest politicians also," he says.
Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, Congress chief whip in the Lok Sabha, says this is precisely the irony of POTA, that leaders like Vaiko who wholeheartedly supported it are now at the receiving end. The law, he says, will continue to be misused by various state governments because that is the nature of the law.
The POTA series continues tomorrow