The home ministry move to stop Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai from travelling to the UK appears to be in conflict with its own directives issued over a decade earlier to check misuse of look-out circulars by police forces.
The immigration officer at the IGI airport who “offloaded” Pillai told her there was a look-out circular (LOC) against her that barred foreign travel.
Pillai was on her way to London to campaign with British MPs for the rights of forest communities affected by the proposed Mahan coal block by British-registered company Essar.
Home ministry officials had initially attributed the LOC to a case registered against Pillai in Mumbai last year when Greenpeace campaigners protested at the company’s office for overlooking the rights of the forest communities.
Pillai told HT the court that released her on bail within a day of the arrest of 14 Greenpeace campaigners had neither sought their passport nor imposed any restriction on their travel outside the state, or the country.
Also, it turns out that at least three others – also booked in the same case – had travelled abroad in recent weeks and months.
“Why was I treated like a criminal?” Pillai asked.
There have been no answers from the home ministry.
Pillai said she hadn’t figured where she had gone wrong.
“I have spent the last four years spreading awareness among forest communities in Madhya Pradesh about the Forest Rights Act, a law enacted by Parliament. We have been stressing that the law be implemented. Is that a crime?” she said.
There is no legal definition of LOC. But the term is used to refer to a communication received from an authorised government agency with reference to a person wanted by the agency for fulfilment of a legal requirement. This could be to secure arrest of a person evading arrest, to nab a proclaimed offender to secure his presence at trial.
A government official added that the LOC was also used to prevent and monitor the entry or exit of persons who may be required by law enforcement authorities.
Government officials are reluctant to reveal the number of LOCs issued annually. According to one account, it could be an average of 50,000, but there is no confirmation.
LOCs – Backed by law
The immigration bureau – which comes under the home ministry – gets its powers to stop citizens from entering or leaving the country under sections 10A and 10B of the Passport Act.
The first provision gives designated officers the powers to suspend the passport or render a travel document invalid for four weeks.
But it is the blanket powers under section 10B that empower the government to direct the immigration officers to restrict or prohibit the departure from India of any passport holder.
Government sources told HT that an overzealous security establishment – that had been targeting Greenpeace and other NGOs perceived to be playing into the hands of some foreign countries for the last two years – appeared to have gone overboard by restricting Pillai’s movements.
For one, an official said, there did not appear to be any reason for the home ministry to have issued the LOC against Pillai in the first place.
“Elaborate guidelines were placed in 2000 by the home ministry to ensure that LOCs are not issued arbitrarily, have the approval of an officer of sufficient superiority and automatically expire at the end of one year,” a government official said. The spirit of the guidelines was to introduce checks and balances in issuing LOCs.
Misuse of LOCs
Pillai may not be the only one to suffer due to LOCs issued in violation of the guidelines.
A Canadian national of Indian origin, Sumer Singh Salkan, who had a pending matrimonial case in court, had to approach Delhi high court against a look-out notice and an Interpol red corner notice (RCN) against him.
In his 2010 judgment, justice SN Dhingra of Delhi high court frowned at the misuse of the powers. The court found merit in Sakhlan’s charge that an IPS officer related to his wife influenced issuance of the notices. “It is apparent that the LOC & RCN were issued for extraneous reasons by an officer who was not authorised,” the court held.
LOC is a coercive measure
Justice Dhingra, who also laid down the ground rules for subordinate courts, however, made it clear that the LOC was a “coercive measure” to make a person surrender and could not be issued without sufficient justification.
In case home secretary Anil Goswami, who has sought a report into the incident, does not withdraw the LOC, Pillai can go back to the trial court where the FIR was registered – or the high court – to seek orders to quash the LOC.
Sources suggested Pillai was exploring her options.
Greenpeace is already fighting a case in Delhi high court against a home ministry order in June last year prohibiting the civil society group from receiving foreign funds.
The MHA directive had come on the heels of a hurriedly-drafted intelligence report that concluded Greenpeace was “a threat” to national economic security.
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