Sunday, May 6, 2012

Undemocratic Anti-Terrorism

The threat of a draconian National Counter-Terrorism Centre combining Intelligence and Police powers seems to have been beaten back, at least for the moment.

All major state leaders, including those supportive of the Manmohan Singh government seem to have opposed the move at the 5 May meeting in New Delhi.

I have to say “seem” because the meeting was closed to the media.

On a situation of critical importance to the future of Indian democracy the government chose to veil debate and keep citizens in the dark.

For this government that is par for the course.

It sneaked in changes to legislation on law and order to create a secretive and unaccountable Intelligence apparatus and is now trying to pretend that is no big deal.

The NCTC “will merely arrest and hand over people to the State police” the Home Minister was quoted in news reports.

He makes it seem so smooth, so law abiding, so impervious to the thuggish proclivities that have characterized “anti-terrorist” activity.

It is as if he never heard of encounter killings or custodial deaths of people manifestly innocent of anything but attracting the interest of gum shoes who think they are storm troopers.

So far, such malignancies have been confined to some states and rogue cops; the NCTC will make that phenomenon national and concentrate abusive power in very few hands.

Even without police powers our Intelligence agencies behave with scant respect for the civil rights of Indians.

I speak from experience about that, as can most journalists whose writings and attitudes have been noticed by the authorities. (The late lamented Dharam Shourie, PTI correspondent at the UN for two decades, told me that whenever he was putting together a politically sensitive story in Delhi a "telephone repairman" would magically appear to work on the connection outside his house.)

What part of my writings and attitudes has attracted the attentions of some agency of the Indian government I cannot say, but it has kept me under surveillance and periodically rifled through my belongings ever since I returned to India in 2008 after four decades in the United States.

The operatives involved have not been masters of their art, so it has been hard to ignore their efforts. In one case my tail followed me into a camera shop and stood behind me gesturing to the salesman not to sell me what I wanted; his image was clearly visible in the glass case we both faced.

At a meeting convened by Pondicherry’s “Progressive Writers,” I was examining my eyelids for holes when the speaker paused to observe that the “spy was asleep;” evidently he hadn’t got the memo that “progressives” should take the assertions of government agents with some salt.

The most recent evidence comes from an experiment I conducted: before leaving Pondicherry on 3 May I locked the door to my bedroom. In New Delhi on 5 May my bag was rifled in my Ashram room and the small bag containing all my keys taken. For some obscure reason they also took all my pens, including a marker I was using to highlight passages in a biography of Sri Aurobindo. 

If pure paranoia can drive agents of the Indian government to act with such breathtaking brazenness towards a senior citizen and life-long votary of Gandhi, what will they not do?

If this piece should be followed by my developing sudden multiple organ failure as happened with pacifist J. Sri Raman a few months ago, chalk it down to anti-terrorism.

In case readers think that is being overly dramatic: in Pondicherry on two occasions motorcyclists who had the look of cops ran into my bicycle quite deliberately and then took off. It was sheer luck that I escaped with only bruises and a concussion.

For the sake of balance I should add that in the United States I was also a person of interest. After 9/11 that was very much an in-your-face phenomenon, with my telephones broadcasting racist talk radio and periodic assaults on my car and house.  At one point a posse of plain-clothes and uniformed police appeared at my door at night and conducted an impromptu cross examination in the living room, vastly thrilling my young children.

Both in the United States and in India I interested the authorities not because of anything I have ever done but because I fit a profile they dreamed up. Perhaps it was simply that their cynical calculus could not compute my independence or idealism.

In such a world it is only prudent to refuse when a government demands an increase in its powers of abuse.

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