The Andhra Pradesh Control of Organised Crime Act, recently passed by the State Assembly, draws flak from Opposition parties and other concerned groups.
ON the lines of similar laws in force in Maharashtra and Karnataka, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government led by N. Chandrababu Naidu last month enacted the Andhra Pradesh Control of Organised Crime Act (APCOCA), with the professed objective of dealing with mafia gangs. However, it has been condemned by Opposition groups as a draconian law.
The passage of the law in the Assembly has stoked fears among Opposition parties that it would be used as an instrument to harass political parties inimical to the TDP. Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) said the bill was aimed at youth belonging to the minority communities, while Gummidi Narasiah of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) New Democracy expressed the fear that it may be used to curtail mass movements. However, Home Minister T. Devender Goud said that the Act, similar to one that was passed in the Karnataka Assembly, was aimed only at mafia gangs operating from outside the country. "The Telugu Desam is a political party with a record of democratic traditions, which fought a battle for the restoration of democracy when NTR (N.T. Rama Rao) was replaced in a political coup in August 1984. We can as well wind up and go home rather than use such a bill against our political opponents," Goud said.
The 'black bill', as the Opposition called it, was passed 12 minutes past midnight on the night of March 29 after the Congress(I) MLAs, four MLAs of the MIM, two members of the CPI(M) and the lone CPI(ML) member walked out of the Assembly. The Opposition is convinced that the APCOCA is only a re-packaged version of the now-lapsed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA).
The State government justified the legislation on the ground that organised mafia groups similar to the ones in Mumbai were rearing their head in Hyderabad. Criminal gangs were posing a threat to society by making the normal legal process ineffective through the subversion of the enforcement machinery and causing violence against witnesses.
But a close examination of the Minister's claim shows that although the level of concern here is exaggerated, it is not entirely without basis. There have been no instances as yet of large-scale extortion, kidnapping by ganglords or mafia-type activity in the State. However, there are land-grabbers with strong political connections at work, well-entrenched gangs making hooch in the Old City of Hyderabad and the spilling of factional violence from Rayalaseema to Hyderabad. Of late, hired assassins undertaking 'supari' or contract killings are also surfacing but not on a scale comparable to Mumbai.
K. Balagopal of the Human Rights Forum said that the APCOCA had all the essential elements of TADA and even the provisions for telephone tapping and the imposition of heavy fines ranging from Rs.1 lakh to Rs.5 lakhs. Balagopal said that it was ironical that the TDP, which had in 1995 demanded that TADA be allowed to lapse because it was an undemocratic and draconian law, should have come forward with the APCOCA.
Balagopal added: "Organised crime in Andhra Pradesh is limited to land grabbing and factionalism. But the major perpetrators of such offences are TDP and Congress leaders. Half the MLAs and MPs from Kurnool and Cuddapah districts in Rayalaseema have links with factions. But the government is not invoking even the existing laws against them. The APCOCA will be used against politically less powerful organisations such as Deendar-e-Anjuman, held responsible for blasts in churches in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and against naxalites."
The Act empowers the State government to constitute Special Courts to try cases of organised crime. The Judges concerned will be appointed by the State government with the concurrence of the High Court. The Act gives the Police wide powers. It authorises police officers not below the rank of an SP to intercept wire, electronic or oral communication for a period of 60 days with the Home Secretary's clearance. Such evidence shall be admissible in the Court during the trial.
Section 20 of the Act states that if a person is convicted of any offence punishable under the Act, the Special Court may declare any property belonging to the accused to be forfeited to the State government. On an application made by a witness, the Special Court can keep the person's identity and address secret and even hold proceedings in camera. Thus, the Act overrides various provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Evidence Act.
However, Devender Goud said that there were safeguards against the misuse of the Act. For instance, a review committee comprising the Chief Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Law Secretary will review every order passed for tapping telephones.
Asaduddin Owaisi, floor leader of the MIM in the Assembly and one of the staunchest critics of the Act, compared it to the notorious Prevention of Terrorist Activities (POTA) Bill which the Centre abandoned after considering it for some time. "The Indian Penal Code deals extensively with the provisions contained in the APCOCA against criminals, including the conspiracy angle through Sections 120-B, 147 and 148. FERA (Foreign Exchange Regulation Act) and FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act) deal extensively with economic offences. The Act is only meant to be used against Muslims; nearly 3,500 Muslims of whom were booked under TADA earlier," Owaisi said.
Owaisi asked how a man being tried under the new law could fight his case if the trial was held in camera and he was denied knowledge of the names of witnesses whose deposition might end in his conviction. "Even the Nuremberg trials against Nazi leaders were held in public," Owaisi said.
The Leader of the Opposition, Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, said that the Congress(I) staged a walk-out from the Assembly since it did not want to be a party to the adoption of a black law. He deplored the provision for admission as evidence confessional statements made before police officers because coercion was invariably used to extract statements in such situations. "This law is worse than TADA. People who will implement this Act have even withdrawn cases of murder against TDP functionaries and filed false cases against Congressmen to settle political scores. Even before the law came into existence, they have tried to falsely implicate my son in a case of conspiracy based on the wild allegations of an accused," Rajasekhara Reddy said.
Nomula Narasimhaiah, a CPI(M) MLA, said that the provisions of the Act were inconsistent with the claims of the Home Department that the crime rate had come down. CPI(ML) legislator Gummidi Narasaiah said that the law will be used to suppress naxalites who were fighting for the poor.
However, the Home Minister denied all these charges. "We are a free society. How can we use this Bill against our political opponents?," he asked. It was meant to prevent Hyderabad from turning into another Mumbai where the mafia has penetrated into several fields including the film industry. The police cited the abduction of Sumedha, a 16-year-old girl, from Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad on March 27, the day the House passed the Bill, as the latest instance of organised crime. The abductors demanded a ransom of Rs.5 crores through hawala channels from the young woman's father, Gopalakrishna, a distributor of tobacco products.
On March 28 the police rescued her from Zaheerabad, about 100 km from Hyderabad, and arrested three abductors. Four more persons were arrested later. The abductors had used a cellphone to contact Gopalakrishna's residence where a caller identification facility was installed. The police traced the origin of the call and alerted Zaheerabad police. Investigations revealed that the abductors had connections with organised crime.
Of late, crime involving the use of hi-tech gadgetry has spread in Hyderabad. For instance, 23 persons were killed in November 1997 when the henchmen of the leader of a group in Ananthpur district triggered a blast in a car using a remote controlled device. The gang had used mobile phones to track the movements of the targeted vehicles. Recently, suitcase bombs aimed at the main accused in the murder of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy's father, and another at Congress(I) MLA from Dharmavaram, K. Surya Pratap Reddy, were recovered by the police.
Hyderabad, a communally sensitive city which also has a large number of defence installations, is also a natural choice of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for its activities. Activists of the Indian Muslim Mujahideen Movement (IMMM) and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) are among those on whom police keep a watchful eye. A few years ago, an Additional SP, Krishna Prasad, was killed when trying to nab Kashmiri militants holed up in a house at Langer Houz.
However, land grabbing is the main criminal activity in Hyderabad and even small-time criminals are shifting to this field which has traditionally enjoyed political patronage. Illicit distillation is another field which has spawned mafia dons. One of them, Sudesh Singh, was shot dead in what was alleged to be a fake encounter.
The police claim that they are sometimes unable to secure convictions even if they nab the accused stands to reason. Srisailam Yadav, the main accused in the killing of seven persons at Erragadda some years ago, was acquitted and he even joined the TDP, although he was virtually disowned by the party later.
The courts too are handicapped because the witnesses are intimidated by henchmen of the criminals being tried. Hence, the police sometimes end up producing false witnesses, leaving judges no option but to dismiss the cases. If the identity of the witnesses is protected and the proceedings are held in camera, this problem can be surmounted, the police say.
All these arguments notwithstanding, concerns regarding the draconian nature of the provisions and the possibility of their misuse at various stages and levels remain.