Sibal on the UPA’s approach to tackling terrorism

Today’s Indian Express features an op-ed by Kapil Sibal who seeks to respond to the call for reviving POTA, while explaining how the UPA government views the issue of tackling terrorism. Given that Sibal is a Cabinet minister in the current government, the piece also seeks to make political points, and has the flavour that one can expect in such pieces. However, some of the statistics he lists are interesting to the extent that they demonstrate that India was not necessarily better off under the NDA regime when there was both a ‘tough’ anti-terrorism law (POTA) and a tough talking Home Minister (LK Advani).

In the rest of the piece, Sibal focuses on the need for institutional responses beyond enacting anti-terrorism statutes. This seems quite persuasive, even if one may want to hold judgment on the efficacy of the institutional responses he says have been set up by the UPA government. The thrust of Sibal’s argument seems to be in the following lines:

“We need to differentiate between combating terror and dealing with terrorists, which require separate strategies. Dealing with terror requires an institutional response and dealing with terrorists requires a legislative response. This subtle distinction is lost on the BJP.”

This may make for good rhetoric, but I am unsure whether this is based on sound logic or good sense. I will readily confess that the “subtle distinction” is lost on me as well. By itself, ‘combating terror’ doesn’t seem significantly different from “dealing with terrorists”. Sibal’s forced distinction reminded me of the controversies which have surrounded the Bush administration’s use of the phrase, “War on Terror.”

In the latter half of his piece, Sibal explains that in his conceptualization, ‘combating terror’ would require providing and buttressing an institutional framework that focuses on improving cooperation among security and intelligence services, and also invests in the scientific equipment and human resources that will be required to monitor and track activities of those suspected of engaging in acts of terrorism. This only drives home the inadequacy of his semantic distinction, because at least some of the strategies he enumerates will require legislative sanctions in order for them to be developed within existing institutional security and intelligence frameworks.

Sibal’s overall argument is persuasive, and is also in line with global lessons drawn in the seven years that have passed since 9/11: that enacting harsh anti-terrorism laws which engender fear and hostility in Muslim populations, and are sometimes used to persecute them, is counter-productive in the long run.

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Tarunabh Khaitan
Tarunabh Khaitan
14 years ago

I agree that the choice of words in drawing the distinction between ‘combating terror’ and ‘dealing with terrorists’ is not exactly elegant, but I do think Sibal is on to something important here. Combating terror is about preventive action – how to stop terror attacks themselves – which requires an administrative response.

He distinguishes this by saying that because criminal deterrent has no effect on terrorists, the criminal justice system can give the terrorists their just deserts (in other words, ‘deal with terrorists’), but cannot itself help prevent further terror attacks.

I think this is a useful way of thinking about terrorism – I pretty much agree that deterrence doesn’t work for most terrorist, who are willing to die for the ’cause’ in the first place. So, the legal system has to satisfy itself with just deserts. Preventing attacks requires better intelligence, better coordination and better policing. Thus the BJP’s insistence on ‘harsh’ criminal laws is not the answer.

Tarunabh Khaitan
Tarunabh Khaitan
14 years ago

Dear Arun
Just to draw your attention to the second part of his article (if you haven’t seen it already), where he gets into the meat of the issues, and draws useful comparisons between POTA and the Unlawful Activities Act. On the whole, a very protective, and welcome, attitude to civil liberties, I think.