Govt may term Sanatan Sanstha terror entity, but gaping holes in law hamper police action on fringe elements
Given what we know of the Sanatan Sanstha’s activities and alleged crimes, it should ideally be classified as a “terrorist organisation”.
If the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad is to be believed, it has just exposed an insidious terror plot being hatched by Sanatan Sanstha. A dossier is being prepared, seeking the Union government’s approval to declare the organisation a “terrorist organisation” under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967.
This is not the first time the Sanatan Sanstha has come under the scanner of the Maharashtra government or the Union government, for that matter. Twice before, in 2001 and 2015, a recommendation was forwarded from the state government seeking its ban, but in both cases, the Ministry of Home Affairs, on behalf of the Union government, turned it down citing lack of evidence. With the recent raids, and the Central Bureau of Investigation linking the Sanatan Sanstha to the murders of Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, it looks like the case to declare the Sanstha a “terrorist organisation” is becoming stronger. Additionally, it looks like they might even have had a hand in the Gauri Lankesh murder as well.
The Sanstha has disowned the persons arrested so far, claiming that they were never really members in the first place. Even if the leadership and other members were not directly involved in the alleged crimes, they have reason to worry.
The UAPA has provisions for designating organisations as either “unlawful association” or “terrorist organisations”. Any group of persons, whether incorporated under law or not can be designated as an “unlawful association” or a “terrorist organisation”. An entity is declared as an “unlawful association” based on its objects whereas a “terrorist organisation” is usually declared as such on the basis that it has actually indulged in terrorism or terrorist acts. While an “unlawful organisation” is usually designated through a notification by the home ministry, a “terrorist organisation” is declared through the amendment of the UAPA itself by the government.
The procedure followed is also different. Whereas an “unlawful association” tag lasts two years only and needs to be renewed with fresh approvals, there is no such requirement for tagging an association as a “terrorist organisation”. Moreover, the notification declaring an association as an “unlawful association” needs to be confirmed by a Tribunal set up under the Act (a sitting judge of a high court) before it takes effect. No such requirement exists for the designation as a “terrorist organisation”. In either case, membership, funding and support for such organisations are crimes under the UAPA.
Given what we know of the Sanatan Sanstha’s activities and alleged crimes, it should ideally be classified as a “terrorist organisation”. Even preparation for a terrorist act will deem an organisation to be a “terrorist organisation” for the purposes of the UAPA, and if the ATS is to be believed the intent of the members was to commit bombings with a view to strike terror and cause chaos and panic.
But will this be enough?
The Maharashtra ATS itself has expressed some scepticism on whether action under the UAPA, by simply designating the Sanatan Sanstha as a “terrorist organisation” will be enough. Sanatan Sanstha is not one organisation and one entity, they point out, but a range of units spread across districts and cities in Maharashtra and possibly elsewhere in India. To tackle this entity, ideally, all these units will need to be covered as well. This is a slightly unfounded fear since the law doesn’t require an organisation to be a strictly defined legal entity. Loose associations can also be designated as such under the UAPA.
There is a precedent for this: the schedule of the UAPA which lists out terror organisations also adds “all its formations and front organisations” in the context of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and the Indian Mujahideen (among others). Should the Sanatan Sanstha be added to the list, then the definition of the organisation could be expanded to add “all its units/formations and front organisations”.
Whether or not Sanatan Sanstha is designated a terrorist organisation, however, two things are fairly clear -- that there is a gap in the law when it comes to fringe political groups who indulge in violence for political ends and the institutional capacity of the police in the state. While laws such as the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 and similar laws deal with organised crime, they have no way of identifying and tagging entities and organisations which use violence for political ends rather than monetary ones. On the other hand, laws such as the National Security Act, 1980 and the UAPA itself are used to crack down on dissent and legitimate political expression with little consequences for such bad faith misuse of the laws.
While the laws may change, the fact remains that India’s state police forces are woefully under-equipped in terms of staffing, training or expertise to handle the task of dealing with such organisations. Even when there’s no active political interference (not always a given), the ability and capacity to keep tabs on and monitor organisations which seek to use violence for political ends is minimal. No one wants a vast and all-powerful police state, but one expects that the law and order machinery is capable of handling the existential threats to the democratic order.
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