Four changes to a counter-terrorism law that have triggered outrage within the opposition will help secure India from individuals who pose a threat to its security and sovereignty including "urban Maoists", the government has said. These include the power to declare suspects as "terrorists", seize their assets, launch cyber-crime and trafficking probes, and empower more officers to handle sensitive cases.
"The bill will not be misused against any individual. Yet, those individuals who engage in terrorist activities against the security and sovereignty of India, including the urban Maoists, would not be spared by the investigating agencies either," Union Home Minister Amit Shah said on Wednesday, while replying to questions in the Lok Sabha.
A term coined by right-wing commentators, "Urban Maoists" or "Urban Naxals" is used often to target critics of the government as sympathisers of left-wing extremists. Opposition parties have protested against the use of such vague categorisation, even by ministers, calling it pejorative.
According to a senior officer in the Home Ministry, the objective of all the proposed amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment or UAPA is to "facilitate speedy investigation and prosecution of terror offences... in line with international practices".
Currently, there is no provision in the UAPA or any other legislation to designate an individual as a terrorist. Therefore, when a terrorist organisation is banned, its members form a new organisation, the officer said.
The amendment will change this but the government insists there will be enough safeguards. "NIA (National Investigation Agency) won't be able to designate anyone (as a terrorist). Only after due process of law would an individual be declared as a terrorist," a senior officer in the probe agency said.
The amendments will also give the powers to the Director General of the NIA to attach properties acquired through terrorism instead of waiting for permissions of the state police. "This is being done to expedite investigation in terror cases and changes are not against the federal principles," the NIA officer said.
Under the third change to the law, the amendments will allow officers under the rank of Deputy Superintendent to investigate terror related cases.
The last change proposed is including provisions for the investigation of cases related to human trafficking and cyber-crimes by the NIA.
Calling them draconian, the opposition has said these changes should not be implemented without being scrutinised by a special panel of lawmakers. However, they were passed in the Lok Sabha yesterday with 287 votes in its favour and eight against it after the opposition walked out in protest.
Several opposition leaders, including the Trinamool Congress's Mahua Moitra, objected to the changes saying the law could be misused to target individuals. Demanding the withdrawal of the Bill, Ms Moitra argued that it will have an impact on the federal structure of the country if passed by parliament.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor described the amendment bill as "hastily brought". When the changes were first tabled over a week ago by the Home Minister, Mr Tharoor had said even veteran BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee had opposed such a provision.
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