Siddharth Varadarajan in THE HINDU DECEMBER 9 2009
The peremptory deportation of a Nepali student from India and the unlawful detention of a tribal woman shot by the police in Chhattisgarh raise troubling questions about the power of our ‘national security’ apparatus.
The Indian Constitution and various laws framed under it grant the Indian state and its agencies enormous power to regulate the movement of persons, especially when the bogey of national security is raised. These powers include the preventive detention of citizens under one pretext or the other and, under the Foreigners Act, the summary deportation of foreign nationals, including those that have legally entered the country and have not violated the laws of the land in any way. Indian nationals who are unable to prove their citizenship to the satisfaction of the police are also subject to summary deportation, without the automatic right to be heard by a court.
Implicit in the grant of such extraordinary powers in a democracy is the understanding that the exercise of authority will be governed by reason and justice in the broadest possible sense. When these principles are jettisoned, arbitrariness and abuse of power become the norm, exposing, under the brittle veneer of democratic paint, the ugly face of a police state answerable to no one other than itself.
Nitu Singh, a young woman from Nepal, is a final year student at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India at Pune. On the night of December 5, 2009, the city police landed up at the FTII hostel without any warrant or paperwork, took her into custody, gathered her personal effects and moved her to Mumbai, from where she was deported to Kathmandu the next day.
The only reason cited by the Pune police was that Ms. Singh had indulged in “anti-national activities”. No detail of these alleged activities was provided, no mention was made of which Indian laws she had violated and no attempt was made to substantiate the charges. The Indian Express, which broke the story, quoted Ravindra Sengaonkar, the city’s Deputy Commissioner of Police (Special Branch), as saying: “Nitu Singh was deported to Nepal because she was found to be involved in anti-national activities. It was a high-level secret operation which our team completed successfully in quick time… We are not supposed to share details. The case is high-profile and various investigative agencies are involved.”
Whatever the nature of her “anti-India activities”, one thing is clear: they were not serious enough to warrant the filing of criminal charges. So why was she deported?
Nitu Singh is the wife of Amaresh Singh, a member of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly. He has also served as an interlocutor between the Nepali Congress, which is his own party, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the Government of India, a process in which India’s external intelligence agency, RAW, has been deeply involved.
According to women’s activists in Pune who have taken up her case, Nitu’s deportation was engineered by her husband, from whom she had grown estranged over the past year or so. On his part, Amaresh has denied playing any role in the entire affair.
Of all the issues this deportation involves, the state of the Singh marriage need not detain us. Husbands and wives fight all the time. When global travel is involved, marital disputes can take on very complex dimensions. But what is unusual is the speed with which Nitu’s expulsion from India took place and the “national security” grounds invoked by the authorities. Despite the enormous latitude granted to the police by Section 3 (2) (c) of the Foreigners Act, foreign nationals are usually deported from India (a) if they are illegal migrants, (b) if they have overstayed their visa, (c) if they have finished serving their sentence for any crime they might have been convicted of, or (d) if their presence in the country is deemed by a minister to be prejudicial to public order. In most cases, the process of deportation is so leisurely that some of those targeted even manage to bring their case before a court, or to escape, as the three Pakistanis who relieved themselves of their police escort in Delhi did last week.
In Nitu Singh’s case, however, none of the usual grounds for deportation obtain. That is why those who took the decision to deport her chose “anti-national activities” as the reason. They gambled on the fact that the smokescreen of national security is usually a thick enough deterrent to ward off troublesome questions. While the S.P.S. Rathore case has taught us that no abuse of law or process is beyond the local constabulary, it is hard to imagine the Pune police dreaming up this deportation on their own steam. Indeed, Mr. Sengaonkar gave the game away by speaking of a “high level” operation and the involvement of other agencies. Since the Ministry of Home Affairs under P. Chidambaram has ordered a probe into this matter, one can safely assume that the “agencies” involved are not those that report to the MHA.
In a speech last month, Mr. Chidamabaram drew attention to the fact that several agencies involved in counter-terrorism report not to him but to the Cabinet Secretariat, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the National Security Advisor. Among these are RAW, the Aviation Research Centre and the National Technical Research Organisation. Could one of those agencies have been involved in the deportation? If so, who within the national security establishment decided Nitu Singh was engaging in “anti-national activities” and what evidence do they have to substantiate the charge? Was Amaresh Singh able to influence this process in any way? These are the questions the Home Minister will hopefully ask as he seeks to get to the bottom of a case that makes India look more like a banana republic than a democracy with rule of law.
If the power to expel a foreigner can be exercised so arbitrarily, this is because the power to prevent the movement of citizens within the country is subject to the same degree of caprice and contempt for the rule of law.
A young Adivasi woman named Sambho Sodi who was injured in police firing in Dantewada last year was prevented by the Chhattisgarh police from travelling to Delhi last week for medical treatment to her wounded leg. The grounds for her detention were that the police needed to record her statement about the incident in which she alleges the security forces fired upon unarmed civilians near Gompad village on October 1, 2009. The police, which claimed the Gompad shooting was part of an anti-Naxalite operation, had all the time in the world to record her statement but chose not to do so as long as she was in Dantewada. But the day she needed to travel to Delhi for treatment, they compelled her to get down from the vehicle she was travelling in and took her in for questioning, prompting her colleagues and friends to urgently move the Supreme Court.
On January 7, the Supreme Court ordered the State of Chhatisgarh “not to interfere in any manner whatsoever” with Ms. Sodi coming to Delhi for her medical treatment and to not “create any obstacle in her way”. At the time of going to press, however, activists handling her case said the police had still not cleared her departure for Delhi. Chhattisgarh has become one of India’s most notorious “no rights” zones, where state-supported vigilantes in the name of Salwa Judum and ‘Special Police Officers’ are free to attack those who are critical of the actions of the security forces. As matters stand, the Chhattisgarh government is already in violation of Supreme Court orders on the rehabilitation of Adivasis displaced by the Salwa Judum. How long the state police will prevent Ms. Sodi from travelling to Delhi remains to be seen.
In their own way, Nitu Singh and Shambho Sodi are both victims of a security establishment which operates on the penumbra of legality and whose forays to the dark side frequently remain unseen and unheard. Rare are the moments when we get to shine the light on them, rarer still the times when senior ministers undertake to right a wrong. The media and the judiciary must make the most of these opportunities.