New Delhi — Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's government is taking on sweeping powers that critics worry could usher in a new era of harsh authoritarian rule. In an effort to check internal unrest, the government has adopted an ordinance allowing the detention of persons without trial for up to a year.
Under the new law, people could be held on suspicion of threating India's security or public order, blackmarketing or hoarding essential goods, or interfering with essential public services.
The preventive detention measure, put into effect Sept. 23, immediately aroused fears that India may be needed for a return of Mrs. Gandhi's "emergency rule" of 1975 to 1977.
"It certainly lays the groundwork if she chooses to move out from here," said a diplomatic observer.
Civil liberties were suspended, the press was censored, and thousands of Mrs. Gandhi's political opponents were tossed into jail during the emergency. The public uproar against compulsory sterilization and slum clearance projects during this period ultimately led to Mrs. Gandhi's downfall in 1977. She then went into political hibernation before returning to power this January.
Leaders of India's splintered opposition parties are vowing to fight the new law. They have denounced it as dangerous, undemocratic, and proof of the government's incompetence in dealing with India's severe economic and social problems despite a massive two-thirds majority in Parliament.
No arrests have been reported under the measure, which applies equally to Indians and foreign nationals. Observers expect it to be applied mostly at the local level against unscrupulous traders and persons trying to incite caste and religious clashes. Some expect it to be used against labor unrest.
The main unanswered question is whether Mrs. Gandhi will eventually use it to jail her political opponents, as she did a 1971 internal security measure that has since been repealed.
"I have no doubt that this ordinance can be used against political opponents, " said former Indian solicitor general Soli J. Sorabjee, a noted civil-rights attorney. But Mr. Sorabjee said he doubted it would be put to political use because the opposition parties are too weak to pose a threat to Mrs. Gandhi.
An official government statement said the ordinance was necessary because of conflicts between castes and religious communities, attacks on untouchables and tribals, and the "increasing tendency on the part of various interested parties to engineer agitation on different issues."
The government said that secessionist activities and regional movements "have reared their ugly head" in parts of the country, challenging lawful authority and occasionally holding the society to ransom.
Under the ordinance, the government takes on sweeping powers to deal with such current pressing problems as the recent wave of Hindu-Muslim riots, mass movements demanding the expulsion of Bangladeshi immigrants from Assam and other northeastern states, and the widespread hoarding that has created artificials scarcities and boosted the price of food and household goods.