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15 Feb 2003

FOR YEARS NOW, ever since India became a republic, India’s circular parliament building has been a symbol of its independence and sovereignty.

Regardless of what takes place inside, and however anti-people certain legislations may be, its very existence is a source of legitimate pride for Indians. No wonder then, when the parliament was attacked on 13 December 2001, it was widely portrayed, especially by politicians and the press, as an attack on Indian democracy. The focus in this report, however, is on the aftermath of this episode - the entire sequence of political and legal proceedings that followed the attack, including the arrests of four persons and their trial in a Special Court. The ramifications of this trial, we believe, are as dangerous for democracy in India as the attack itself. Parliament, after all, is too deep seated an institution to be overthrown by a few gunmen. But the rule of law is infinitely more fragile. It is our experience that laws like the now defunct MISA and TADA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act or the new Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) set in motion a process whereby it is easy to subvert the procedural norms and civil liberties that are an essential part of democracy. When the rule of law is short-circuited, or dispensed with for the sake of political expediency, then citizens have serious cause to worry.

PUDR followed the trial closely for two reasons: (a) The manner in which the arrests were made by the Delhi Police Special Cell, and the accused triumphantly displayed in handcuffs before the media as the persons who had conspired to kill the nation’s leadership, gave rise to the apprehension that the four accused had been incriminated even before they had been tried in a court of law. Given this context we wished to ensure that even within the limits of POTA, it would be a fair trial i.e., the accused would be heard, they would be adequately represented in court in an atmosphere free from intimidation and prejudice, and the judgment would be based on clear and unambiguous evidence. (b) The trial was the first to be held under POTA. One of the major problems with laws like TADA and POTA is their power to label people. If a person has been detained under POTA, then chances are that people will believe that he/she is guilty of being a “dangerous terrorist” Worse, both in their conception and implementation, TADA and POTA rest on the erroneous perception that people who belong to minority communities are more likely to be ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-nationals’ than others. In the present political and ideological atmosphere, where the very act of applying POTA prejudges the action, the rights of the accused are treated as an especially dispensable commodity.