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PFI Ban: What the Crackdown Signals for Terror Outfits On The State's Radar

That the PFI, registered under the Societies Act, operated without checks indicates that the act needs a review.

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The scale of the twin raids on the Popular Front of India (PFI)-- a controversial Muslim group and its frontal and associate organisations, spanning over multiple states, cities and multiple police forces, coordinated at the topmost levels in the country’s security structure are perhaps a very clear signal that the structure is functional and capable and now has been given the teeth.

Coordinated, countrywide search and arrest operations of this scale do not happen in a jiffy. These clearly would have involved massive intelligence and collection efforts in the background which were in the works over a prolonged period of time.

Snapshot
  • Intelligence and investigation agencies have shown signs of increasing coordination between agencies both at the Central and State level – agencies like NIA, ED and CBI have started acting in tandem and so too do the DRI and NCB weigh in whenever required. 

  • UAPA penalises not merely acts and omissions but also conspiracies, raising of funds and preparation for committing ‘terrorist acts’.

  • That the PFI was a society registered under the Societies act and kept operating without a check for a long time is a pointer that the Societies Act needs a review. 

  • The forcible collection or extortion, in the name of Societies/Unions is a big menace in North-East and enactment of legislation to curb it is an immediate necessity

  • When banning individuals, what is important is how are these individuals to be treated after the bans are imposed. If the proscribed individuals are in custody – as under-trials or for preventive detention, fast-track prosecution and trials need to be ensured.

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 Increased Synergy Between Intelligence Agencies

What is satisfying is that the intelligence and investigation agencies have shown signs of increasing coordination between agencies both at the Centre and State level – like the National Investigation Agency(NIA), Enforcement Directorate(ED) and Central Bureau Of Investigation (CBI) have started acting in tandem and so did the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence(DRI) and Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) which weigh in whenever required.

This means that the organisational, legal and manpower limitations are overcome by the synergy created. This is encouraging except that some may claim that they are being hounded or persecuted.
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UAPA Puts Terror on Trial

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act(UAPA) is a powerful legal instrument with enough safeguards. The law comes closest to defining what can be called a ‘terrorist act’ and terrorism. The law penalises not just acts and omissions but also conspiracies, raising of funds and preparation for committing ‘terrorist acts’.

The acts include those which threaten or are likely to threaten the unity, integrity and security of India, or sovereignty of India and also those which are likely to strike terror in the people of India or a foreign country.

Economic security is another facet of security which is included besides attempts to cause death of any public functionaries or kidnapping or abduction of any person to coerce or compel the Government to do or abstain from doing an act.

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PFI Under Societies Act Long Escaped the Scanners

Raising of funds for committing terrorist acts is a punishable offence and so are acts of organising terrorist camps or recruiting people for such acts and harbouring fear. A lesser used provision is ‘punishment for being member of a terrorist gang or organisation’ which implies that even a loose networking of individuals coming together for a ‘terrorist act’ could be construed as a gang – a provision which can be used against the criminal gangs and organised crimes. Perhaps common intention and knowledge could be enough to implicate a person.

The UAPA makes ‘terrorist acts’ committed by the societies and trusts punishable too and perhaps fills in a gap which is left by the Societies Registration Act, 1860. However, the Societies Law and Indian Trusts Act, 1882, are themselves deficient because they merely enable creation of societies and do not have adequate provisions for their monitoring. These two laws do not penalise the non-maintenance of financial records nor do they provide for regular inspections.

The fact that the PFI was a society registered under the Societies Act and kept operating without a check for a long time indicates that the Societies Act needs a review.
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Numerous societies do not file financial returns or inform the Government agencies about the activities they are undertaking. This leaves a huge void. In North East India, a number of these Societies have become dens of extortion, extorting from ‘birds of the same feather’, amassing wealth to enrich a few who catapult themselves to ‘office bearers’ and throw their weight around. Perhaps better mechanisms need to be adopted to deal with societies and trusts.

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North East Reeling Under Money Extortion

With better technological interface, perhaps mandatory filing of returns of activities and finances needs to be incorporated in the laws. To prevent extortion from the innocent, there is also a case for only permitting ‘voluntary contributions’ and donations and that too only by electronic means so that a clear cut trail is available to monitor the inflows and the outflows.

With mobile banking having enabled grassroots access, perhaps there is a strong case for 70:30 ratio of electronic to cash collections for societies. The forcible collection or extortion, in the name of societies/unions is a big menace in the North East and enactment of a legislation to curb it, is an immediate necessity.

North-east is a mirror -- cradle for what happens elsewhere. By this logic, similar forcible collections are probably a menace elsewhere in the country too.

Apart from this, unmonitored societies – their finances and activities also provide a ‘parallel structure’ for criminals and criminal or shady organisations to rotate their funds for unlawful activities – insurgent groups too. The sooner this is tackled, the better it is.
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Is Banning an Answer To Tackle Terrorism?

Another aspect is the banning of organisations under the UAPA. Ex facie, only organisations which have a ‘registered’ presence can be proscribed. Organisations like insurgent or terrorist outfits whose structure is secret or which are not registered are difficult to tackle by way of bans.

Such organisations which are not recognised cannot theoretically, be banned – they exist, yet do not. Similar is the case for unorganised groups or ‘gangs’. However, often their members are known.

In 2019, the parliament tried to fill this void by incorporating provisions for banning individuals – a very welcome move.

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Some of the people associated with banned organisations, when these get proscribed, shift allegiances to or form new ones or metamorphose into newer ones and continue their activities. Again, this happens a lot in North-East where ‘defections’ from one group or faction to another is as rampant as ‘splits’.

These twin-tactics and others can easily help the cadres escape the dragnet of ‘proscriptions’. Therefore, proscribing ‘individuals’ assumes importance – afterall, it is the individuals who make up the organisations.
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Modifying Surveillance for Banned Individuals

However, when banning individuals, what is important is how are these individuals to be treated after the bans are imposed. If the proscribed individuals are in custody as undertrials or for preventive detention, fast-track prosecution and trials need to be ensured.

The problem is how to handle them if they are not arrested or if they have been granted bail or are out of incarceration, either by way of acquittals or post-conviction.

Some degree of surveillance or watch over such individuals is desirable – the closeness, of course being dependent on the degree of radicalisation of the person. Whether that surveillance should be extended to associates and family members is another question as is the question of what all aspects of a person’s life ought to come under surveillance or be excluded.

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The PFI raids and proscription, are obviously based on intelligence inputs too besides the police agencies and NIA. Kudos to all involved !

Like any other incident, there would be learnings here too. When the learnings are again concretised to strengthen the noose, maybe my two cents above could be factored in too.

(The author is an IPS Officer currently posted as DG Prisons, Homeguards and Civil Defence in Nagaland. He tweets @rupin1992. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Anti-Terror Crackdown   PFI Ban   UAPA 

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