Of Orwellian Times and Beyond: Examining India’s Recently Amended Anti-Terror Law

Guest Contributor Ashwin is an Advocate practising across trial and appellate courts in India. He belongs to ’18 B.A.LL.B.(Hons.) class of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, India.

When governments decide to condemn one as being “involved in terrorism” simply on the basis of belief and nothing else, one cannot help but wonder whether “Thought Police” from George Orwell’s 1984 is being brought to life. To be condemned solely on beliefs would indeed be blasphemous for the vires of justice. The Indian Parliament has recently introduced a process which allows individuals to be subjectively designated as terrorists by the government. The recent amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act allow the Indian Central Government to designate any individual as being “being involved in terrorism” based solely on, as stated,“if [the Central Government] believes that such… individual is involved in terrorism.”

 Violation of the Principles of Natural Justice & lack of Procedural Fairness

These recent amendments to the Act threaten the principles of natural justice and procedural fairness. The principles of natural justice underlie the need for procedural fairness. These principles aim at safeguarding the right to a fair trial procedure. The two most widely recognized principles of natural justice are audi  alteram partem and nemo judex in causa sua.  Audi Alteram Partem refers to  the right of a person to be heard before he or she is condemned by law. Similarly, nemo judex in causa sua literally implies that none shall be a party to their own cause.This implies  that a party which levels an allegation, cannot adjudicate upon the accusation as well.   While commenting on the fitness of a legislation vis-à-vis principles of natural justice, in the landmark case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India the apex court laid down that “…  legislation must take processual provisions which accord with fair norms, free from extraneous pressure and, by and large, complying with natural justice. Unilateral arbitrariness, police dossiers, faceless affiants, behind-the-back materials, oblique motives and the inscrutable face of an official sphinx do not fill the ‘fairness’ bill…

Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Government of India is not required to establish convincing evidence or even give an opportunity of representation to an individual, before they are designated as a person involved in terrorism. The government, solely acting on its “belief”, can pass an order unilaterally,thereby violating the principle of audi alteram partem.  Additionally, there is no requirement to hand over the reasons in writing to the person being so condemned. 

The only instance of a statutory hearing offered through the legislation comes after the label of being “involved in terrorism” is attached. This hearing takes place in the form of a review process, under S.36 of the Act. This review process entails a summary proceeding by a Review Committee, which assesses whether the grounds of detention are indeed valid or not. The review proceedings award wide discretion to the presiding adjudicators since its manner of working has not been comprehensively outlined in the legislation. Notably, the power of appointing an adjudicator to hear an accused’s review plea lies with the Central Government, which also designates the person as a terrorist.  Pursuant to S. 37(3), the Central Government may appoint the judge who is to preside over a Review Committee. While in the event of appointing a sitting judge, the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court is required; if the government chooses to designate a retired High Court judge to hear the issue, then in such a case complete discretion regarding the choice of adjudicator lies with the Central Government. Thus, the same authority which condemns an individual for being involved in terrorism, i.e., the Central Government, has also been awarded the discretion to appoint the person who shall decide the condemned individual’s review plea.

Amendments to the Anti-terror law & India’s international obligations

The legislation also derogates from India’s international obligations. This is particularly true in relation to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. The ICCPR lays down under Article 14 that “…everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal...” Furthermore, the covenant provides the right “To be informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him.” The ICCPR calls such rights “minimum guarantees”. 

Interestingly enough, the Government of India has itself recognized the obligation of a state to ensure a fair trial by relying on ICCPR in its own written submissions to the International Court of Justice in the Jadhav Case, even according it the status of an erga omnes obligation.

To have a zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism is indeed a welcome step. However, in doing so, one cannot manifest a procedure which awards excessive power. The recent terror amendments have evoked criticism within India, with scholars and writers looking at the amended law as a potential threat which may lead to civil death for those who dissent, and even India’s very own McCarthyism moment

It must be noted that in the past more than 2/3rd of the cases under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act have resulted in acquittals or discharge of the accused. The unamended Act already defines a  “Terrorist act” and accords an independent trial procedure and punishment for it.The recent amendments add erroneous discretion to an Act that ought to be based in principles of procedure and natural justice. 

Being labeled as a terrorist has immense consequences for the accused. This designation should only be awarded once a person is convicted of committing a terrorist act under the Act, pursuant to proper procedural review. This would ensure that the label of being involved in terrorism comes after appraisal of evidence by an independent court rather than simply the belief of the executive.

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