What is the bill about?
On March 31, 2015, the Gujarat Assembly passed the Gujarat Control of Terrorism and Organised Crime Bill (GCTOC) with a view to curbing “organised crime”. It is, essentially, an anti-terrorism law modelled on laws such the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act. The bill’s ‘Objects Statement’ says, “The illegal wealth and black money generated by organised crime is very huge and has serious adverse effect on economy. It is noticed that the organised criminal syndicates make a common cause with terrorist gangs and foster macro terrorism which extends beyond the national boundaries…”
In September 2015, the Home Ministry cleared the GCTOC Bill and sent it to Pranab Mukherjee for his assent, but on January 28, the President sent it back to the Union Home Ministry seeking clarifications on some of the provisions in the Bill.
What happens now?
The Home Ministry will write to the state government conveying the clarifications the President has sought. Once it hears from the state government, it will provide additional inputs to the President. The Ministry has informed the President that it will submit a re-worked Bill for his approval.
What is the problem with this Bill?
One of the most controversial provisions in the Bill is the interception of oral, wire or electronic conversations and their admissibility as evidence in a court of law. In July 2015, the Centre had sent back the GCTOC Bill to the state government after certain objections were raised by the Ministry of Information and Technology, which said that the Bill was in conflict with The Indian Telegraph Act, a Central law. Under the provisions of The Indian Telegraph Act, in case of a public emergency, an officer of secretary rank can give permission to intercept calls. The Gujarat government has entrusted the Home Secretary to authorise such interceptions. But the Gujarat government rejected these objections and went ahead with the Bill.
The recent cases of sedition slapped on leaders of the Patidar quota stir, including Hardik Patel, are based heavily on telephonic conversations among the accused. Under the Indian Telegraph Act, such interceptions are admissible as evidence before the court but it is considered a “corroborative” piece of evidence, not a conclusive piece of evidence.
The bill has another important and controversial provision: that a statement made before a police officer, not below the rank of Superintendent of Police, is admissible as evidence in court. Civil rights organisations have been opposing this provision, calling it a violation of the fundamental rights of an accused. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, a Central anti-terror law that has since been repealed, had a similar provision on confession to police being admissible as evidence in court. Charges against the accused in cases such as Godhra and the Akshardham terror attack were based largely on confessions of accused before police officers. In the Akshardham case, all the accused were later acquitted by the Supreme Court. These two provisions in the Gujarat bill are what two earlier presidents had objected to while returning it.
When was it returned before this?
This is the third incarnation of the Bill, which has come back each time with minor changes. The original bill, the Gujarat Control of Organised Crime Bill (GUJCOC), was passed by the Gujarat Assembly in 2003, when Narendra Modi was chief minister. In 2004, then president APJ Abdul Kalam returned the Bill while objecting to the provision related to interception of communications. In 2008, they introduced it again in the state assembly and sent it to the Union ministry when Pratibha Patil was president. But she too returned it, while objecting to the provision on confessions made to a police officer.
In 2015, the Gujarat government made some minor changes to the bill: adding ‘terrorism’ to the name of the original Bill and saying that confession of an accused must be made before an officer of the rank of SP or above for it to be admissible in court. The assembly then passed the Bill, which was then sent to President Mukherjee.
Has the bill been a sore point for Gujarat-Centre ties?
Soon after the earlier bill was passed, the NDA government at the Centre made way for the UPA. Irked that it wasn’t clearing the Bill, Modi, then CM, wrote to then president Kalam seeking approval for the bill on the ground that similar bills were in operation in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. In 2006, the Gujarat assembly passed a resolution asking the Centre to clear the bill. In 2007, Modi wrote twice to then PM Manmohan Singh to intervene and expedite the Bill. In 2008, after the serial blasts in Jaipur, Modi wrote another letter to Singh on the bill. Later that year, the Gujarat cabinet passed a resolution for immediate approval of the bill.