NEW DELHI - Responding to rising public anger about security lapses after the Mumbai assault, India's lower house of parliament yesterday passed a string of tough antiterrorism laws and a plan to set up a national investigative agency.
The government proposed two key bills that will facilitate investigation and trial of the accused in cases of terrorism. The bills must go to the upper house, perhaps as soon as today, but mostly as a formality.
"You have captured the mood of the nation," Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told lawmakers after several hours of debate. "The nation expects parliament to pass these laws today and restore their confidence."
The bills have assumed urgency in India after the deadly Mumbai rampage in which 10 gunmen laid siege to the city for three days and killed 164 people and wounded more than 230 in attacks on two luxury hotels, a restaurant, a train station and a Jewish center.
India has blamed the outlawed, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba for engineering the attacks and asked Islamabad to crack down on groups fomenting violence against India.
Pakistan has offered a joint probe and has detained some leaders of the group in the last few days. Yesterday, officials sought to put the pressure back on India, demanding that it hand over "concrete evidence" against Pakistani citizens and groups allegedly involved in the terror attack.
Officials have been saying for days that they needed evidence to try suspects, but there was no sign from India yesterday that it would provide any of its findings soon. The squabble epitomizes the distrust between the nuclear-armed countries, which have fought three wars in six decades.
Responding to the national outrage that followed the Mumbai attacks, India has already established a comprehensive revamping of its security forces and strengthened coastal borders and intelligence agencies.
The left-of-center government earlier tried to pass an antiterror measure, but it failed because of its sweeping powers and potential for abuse. In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, the government felt pressured by public opinion to introduce a similar law that would hold muster to clamp down on extremists.
The new proposal increases the period of detention of suspects by the police and the judiciary from 90 to 180 days, and seeks to choke the financial pipelines of groups suspected of abetting extremist attacks.
The law also makes the signed confession of suspects in police custody inadmissible in court, a crucial deterrent against coercive methods often used during interrogation. It also gives the courts the power to decide bail in some cases.
"Despite the enormous public pressure, the government has done a tightrope walk by ensuring necessary legal safeguards," said Mahesh Rangarajan, an independent political analyst and newspaper columnist. "Indian political leadership is saying, 'We mean business,' but is also saying, 'We will not let the police run amok in its hunt for the enemy.' "
The government also proposed the setting up of a national agency, along the lines of the FBI, to investigate and prosecute "offenses affecting the sovereignty, security and integrity" of the country.