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Saturday, 23 March, 2002, 17:30 GMT
Boost for India anti-terror bill
Muslims in Gujarat
There are fears the Muslim community may be targeted
India Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's chances of pushing through a controversial anti-terrorism law improved on Saturday when five neutral MPs joined his coalition.

Yes, the government has a comfortable majority

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee

Reports said the MPs formed a new party which they said would join Mr Vajpayee's ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The development now means Mr Vajpayee will be able to muster enough votes to pass the law in a rare joint session of parliament on Tuesday.

The Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (Poto) was passed by the lower house earlier this week, but the NDA failed to push it through the upper house where it does not have a majority.

Announced after the 11 September attacks in the United States, the ordinance allows security forces much greater powers of arrest, interrogation and detention.

'Comfortable majority'

The ruling coalition, led by Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party, now has 410 MPs, more than the 392 votes required at the parliamentary session.

It will be only the third time that both houses have met since independence in 1947.

Cleaner washes bloodstains after the attack on American Centre in Calcutta
Recent attacks strengthened support for new law

"Yes, the government has a comfortable majority," Mr Vajpayee was quoted by the AFP news agency as telling parliament.

The proposed law would allow security forces to detain suspects for up to 30 days without having to bring them to a court.

Police are already able to act on the bill's provisions as, under the Indian constitution, the government can implement laws for a limited period.

However, such bills must eventually win the approval of parliament otherwise they lapse.

Minority fears

Poto defines as a "terrorist" anyone threatening India's unity as well as causing "terror among people".

However, criticism of the bill has focused on fears that it may be used to target members of minority communities in predominantly Hindu India.

Concern has increased since the recent outbreak of violence in the western state of Gujarat, which left more than 700 people dead.

One of the smaller parties in the governing coalition, the DMK party, has said it is looking into reports that Poto was misused against members of the Muslim community in Gujarat.

And opposition parties in parliament - led by Congress - alleged that those detained under the law in Gujarat do not include prominent Hindu hardliners reportedly involved in orchestrating the violence.

Muslims were targeted by Hindu rioters in revenge for an attack on a train carrying Hindu activists back from the town of Ayodhya, the focus of a dispute over plans to build a temple.

The bill, described as draconian by the opposition, was defeated when it was first placed before the lower house in December.

It was re-issued after an attack on the Indian parliament building by gunmen on 13 December, and appeared to gain support after that incident and an attack on a US cultural centre in Calcutta.

See also:

21 Mar 02 | South Asia
India anti-terror bill rejected
19 Mar 02 | South Asia
India anti-terror bill progresses
14 Jan 02 | South Asia
India unmoved by Pakistan crackdown
08 Jan 02 | South Asia
India demands proof of Pakistan resolve
31 Dec 01 | South Asia
India hands Pakistan 'wanted' list
25 Feb 02 | South Asia
Analysis: India's vulnerable BJP
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