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What’s the disincentive?

Down the ages, the fear of god has been a pretty good incentive for people to be good — or, at any rate, to not be bad, writes Chanakya.

india Updated: Jul 16, 2011 21:29 IST
Hindustan Times

Down the ages, the fear of god has been a pretty good incentive for people to be good — or, at any rate, to not be bad. It isn’t too much of a coincidence that cultures that have believed in a vengeful god have been, to a large extent, responsible for creating and firming up modern secular laws, and for taking them seriously. In the modern, secular context, it is the fear of the law that provides the incentive for people to be ‘good’, or law-abiding. ‘Break a law, and you will be punished’ has been an effective and universal mechanism to ensure order over anarchy.

Now imagine if you were one of those who were deranged enough and have been responsible for carrying out Wednesday evening’s trail of destruction in Mumbai. What would have been your disincentive to wage war against the State and blow up innocent people? In the absence of a conscience, very little actually. Without wanting to sound alarmist, let me also ask this: what will hold back a potential terrorist or a self-styled ‘enemy of the State’ from launching future attacks on Indians?

As of now, it certainly isn’t the law that will hold the future terrorist back.

The Mumbai terrorist attacks of 26/11 were supposed to have been the game-changer in this respect. Even with the litany of bomb blasts and terrorist attacks across India in general and in Mumbai in particular over the years, the scale of the November 26, 2008, attack left no one in doubt that India needed a strong law against terrorism.

But as far as déjà vu goes, terror laws in this country take the cake. After the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian Parliament by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists, a similar bugle blast was sounded and soon enough the anti-terrorism legislation, the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (Pota), was enacted by Parliament.

As in the case of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (Tada) that it replaced — Tada having coming into being in 1985 in response to the terrorism in 1980s Punjab — Pota was repealed after too many cases of the law being abused were reported. (Tada was repealed after its misuse in the aftermath of the 1993 post-Babri Masjid demolition blasts in Mumbai.) Like an ugly clockwork, it was 26/11 that yet again drove home the need for a strong, effective anti-terror law and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act was introduced.

So has this piece of legislation passed by the UPA government in 2008 managed to do the needful — that is, to send out a strong message to terrorist suspects or terrorists-to-be that the State will hit against its enemies and hit against them hard?

Clearly not.

Even if one discounts the matter of using the law to arrest terrorist ‘sympathisers’ as ‘dangerous’ as Dr Binayak Sen for sedition — and a working democracy such as ours cannot afford to discount the spectre of facilitating a police State — the fact of the matter is the terrorist in India has no real law to be afraid of.

Stopping an act of terrorism is like catching bullets. The die is always loaded in the terrorists’ favour who can fail as many times as he wants as long as he succeeds that one time. In any case, plastic explosives such as the ammonium nitrate-fuel oil mixture used in Wednesday’s blasts are almost impossible to detect. But it is the law and how evidence against suspects is gathered that provide the anti-bullet kevlar vest. A strong law and effective implementation is bound to bring down the number of attempted terrorist attacks, which in turn, can significantly reduce the chances of that ‘one attack’ slipping through.

The United States, for all its war against the wrong country to dismantle the perpetrators of 9/11, has not had a successful terrorist attack on its soil since al-Qaeda waged war against the American State. Coupled with the nuts and bolts of an untiring anti-terrorism system in place — that includes intelligence, security, military muscle-flexing — the US Patriot Act (which George W Bush’s successor at the White House, Barack Obama, extended by four more years in May) plays its part to keep America and Americans safe from terrorists. America’s bumper sticker for terrorists tailing it is clear and simple: anyone who seeks to harm us, will pay.

In India, this is what a potential terrorist gets to see: Ajmal Kasab who has been sentenced to death by Indian courts for waging war on the Indian State in the Mumbai 26/11 attacks is not doing too badly in jail; Parliament attacker Afzal Guru is also in jail with a death sentence that seems as good as a life sentence; suspects in the July 11, 2008, Mumbai train blasts were let off after no credible evidence was found against them... The list is scarily comforting for anyone wishing to wage war against the Indian State.

To make its citizens feel safe, the government should start by doing one thing: set examples and make potential terrorists afraid.

First Published: Jul 16, 2011 21:28 IST