Why the NCTC Threatens Democracy

The National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC), announced by the Home Ministry, has run into trouble due to opposition from various State Governments – those ruled by opposition parties as well as UPA allies like the TMC. But we need to go beyond the contention in the ruling class camp, and examine what NCTC will really mean for common citizens and our democracy.

Federalism and the NCTC

The main ground of opposition by State Governments has been that it violates the norms of federalism by giving the NCTC powers to make arrests – thereby encroaching on the territory of the States’ police force – and obligating State agencies to furnish any information, document, transcript etc to the NCTC, on condition of confidentiality.

In response to such criticism, the Home Ministry has argued that State Governments have been known to act in partisan ways. For example, BJP Governments have acted to protect those accused of Hindutva terror. According to the Home Ministry, the NCTC will only have the ‘minimum powers’ required to be able to act against terror suspects irrespective of the priorities and assessment of State Governments.

This argument is hardly convincing, however. After all, what if it were a BJP Government at the Centre? Could it not then use the NCTC to protect Hindutva terrorists and witch-hunt innocent minorities? For that matter, haven’t even Congress Governments (such as the Governments of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, for instance) soft-pedalled Hindutva terror and witch-hunted innocent minorities? With the sweeping powers the NCTC will usher in, won’t such witch-hunt of minorities and political dissidents increase?

The Home Ministry also argues that there have been several instances of poor sharing of information and intelligence regarding terrorism, which would also be corrected by having a single overarching counter-terrorism body like the NCTC. But surely better information and intelligence sharing can be achieved without expanding the scope of centralised draconian policing powers?

Federalism is no doubt one of the principles at stake in the NCTC. But we cannot help recalling that these CMs (of Odisha, W Bengal, Bihar etc) who are crying hoarse that the NCTC is ‘draconian,’ have an appalling track record of rights violations and war on people in their own states!
However, the draconian character of the NCTC goes far beyond violations of principles of federalism.

Policing Powers to the IB

The NCTC is modelled on the lines of the organisation of the same name that was set up in the US following 9/11. So, the NCTC in India is yet another instance of the Indian Government following the US model of ‘war on terror,’ notorious for its communal profiling and violations of civil liberties.

But there is one crucial matter which makes India’s NCTC even worse than the US’ NCTC. The NCTC in the USA is mainly authorised to coordinate and process intelligence, and has an advisory role in terrorism cases. It has no authority to conduct searches and make arrests – these powers remain with the official law enforcement agencies. In India, the NCTC has been placed under the Intelligence Bureau (IB) – and it effectively gives the IB hitherto unprecedented policing powers! In other words, the IB, a shadowy and secret force with no legal status and no accountability, will be authorised to make searches and arrests!

All revolutionary organisations and people’s movements know the IB as the force that conducts surveillance on their activities. Should a force like the IB have any place at all in a democracy? The IB is an adjunct of the Home Ministry, but it has no legal status. It first came into being in colonial India in 1885, to spy on Russian activities on the Afghan border (that backdrop of colonial espionage has been celebrated as the ‘Great Game’ in Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim). Subsequently, it was used to spy on the freedom struggle, especially on the activities of revolutionary militants.

In independent India, the IB occupies a strange grey zone. It is attached to the Home Ministry and generally headed by an IPS officer. But it has not been given any legal status (i.e it has not come into being on the basis of legislation, but only through an executive order). This is in order to protect it from any obligations of accountability or transparency. Officially, the IB is supposed to collect and provide intelligence inputs to the police, and only the police can act on such information. But as all activists know from personal experience, the IB does much more. The IB is notorious for spying on political dissidents and rivals, planting evidence, and other devious activities to serve the ruling powers.

In many democratic countries, intelligence agencies are governed by the law and accountable to parliament. Why not so in India? Now, the already shadowy and unaccountable IB, if it acquires policing powers through the NCTC, will become a virtual secret police with arbitrary powers, not only to arrest and search, but even to requisition forces like NSG commandos for anti-terrorist operations! A scary prospect for any democracy!

Draconian UAPA

The powers conferred upon the IB through the NCTC are effectively the draconian powers already enjoyed by the police through the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). When POTA was scrapped, the UAPA was empowered with some of POTA’s draconian provisions. The amendments to the UAPA in 2008 made it even more draconian, and in practice there have been countless instances of its being deployed against activists of people’s movements and political dissenters.

Not only is there a need to oppose the bid to confer powers on the IB in the name of NCTC, the UAPA itself needs to be recognised as a draconian legislation and done away with. Draconian laws and measures have never succeeded in curbing terrorism – rather they have always been used against political dissenters and movements.

‘Homeland Security’ Approach

The NCTC is only one of the many measures that the UPA Government is keen on pushing in, in line with modelling India’s security establishment on pro-US, pro-corporate lines.

There can be no quarrel with the need for better sharing of intelligence to prevent terror attacks. But above all, it needs to be realised that the approach of investigative agencies and police in India can be effective in curbing terrorism only when they are rid of their reliance on custodial torture and community profiling, and adopt a no-tolerance approach to false framing and fake encounters.

The huge increase in defence outlay in successive recent budgets, the setting up of National Investigation Agency (NIA) and National Intelligence Grid, the Pentagon’s report of the presence of US ‘agencies’ helping India’s counter-terrorism efforts (see the article in this issue on ‘The Real Foreign Hand in India’), the haste and insistence in implementing the Aadhaar (UID) scheme (without parliamentary approval and in spite of serious doubts about its invasion of privacy) with the participation of private US security corporations, and the NCTC seeking to confer draconian powers on the IB – we need to connect these dots to see the real picture. What is the real motive behind these measures? Who stands to benefit? The answer to this can be gauged from a 2010 report of the corporate institutions ASSOCHAM and KPMG, titled ‘Homeland Security in India.’

The phrase ‘Homeland Security’ in the title of this report is directly borrowed from the USA. The report, mentioning the National Intelligence Grid, UID scheme, the plans for NCTC, and what the report calls the massive increase in India’s ‘Homeland Security Budget’, says that these “initiatives launched within the larger ambit of Homeland Security have the potential of creating considerable opportunities for large industry players to enter into the Homeland Security market.” It makes many suggestions for firms that are “looking to leverage the opportunity manifested in this sector in the country” and eagerly looks forward to ‘public private partnership’ in Homeland Security, as seen in the US. The Home Ministry’s various counter-terrorism measures are likely to provide a lucrative avenue for corporate profit, and with this corporate/PPP role in policing, the assault on civil liberties and democracy can only go from bad to worse.

Clearly, the NCTC is not just a body seeking to encourage better intelligence sharing. It raises the spectre of transforming the IB from an unaccountable spy agency, to an unaccountable secret police armed with draconian powers. And we also need to be alert about the larger agenda of the pro-corporate, pro-US transformations being made in India’s security establishment.

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