Prison role challenges Bombay screen idol: The trial of a much-loved film star is prompting many Indians to call for the abolition of harsh anti-insurgency measures

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INDIA'S most idolised film hero, Sanjay Dutt, may appear rugged, but he is unconvincing in the tough-guy roles he always plays. He looks like the runt who had sand kicked in his face, took a body-building course, but who still believes he is a weakling.

Dutt made the mistake of believing in his macho screen image. To protect his family in the Bombay communal riots of January 1993, he bought an AK-56 assault rifle from some gangsters on the fringes of 'Bollywood', the Bombay film industry. A few months later these criminals confessed to helping to transport explosives, used to set off a dozen bombs in March 1993 around Bombay that killed more than 250 people. They mentioned the film star's assault rifle. Sanjay was jailed in April 1993 (he wept during police interrogation), was released on bail and on 4 July was thrown into solitary confinement in a high- security prison near Bombay.

But a chance has come for Sanjay to play a real-life hero. He and his lawyers are challenging India's draconian Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, known as Tada. The actor wants bail, since his trial may not begin for two years. His friends believe the actor had nothing to do with the bombings. Some blame Maharashtra state's Chief Minister, Sharad Pawar, who they say is using Tada to settle scores with Dutt's father, an MP and former actor.

Dutt's arrest has sparked protests from the media, opposition politicians, lawyers and human rights groups, to ban Tada. Over 65,000 Indians are jailed under Tada. Dutt's solitary cell in the maximum-security block at Thane prison seems like a maharajah's palace compared to what most Tada's victims endure.

Suspected terrorists are routinely tortured; electric shocks and chili powder inserted in the anus are a police favourite. They can be jailed for six months without bail and often languish for more than five years awaiting trial. Their confessions, even if extracted under torture, are admissible in court. The prosecution can also keep its own witnesses secret until the trial, held in camera.

According to human rights monitors, only 1 per cent of these suspected terrorists would be convicted if due processes of law were applied. Ravi Nair, of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre, said: 'Mahatma Gandhi started his movement against the British for the Rowlatt Act, which allowed detention without trial. The British never used it, but that was kid's stuff compared to Tada.'

Politicians use Tada to silence their enemies. Although it was enacted in 1987 to combat Sikh insurgents in Punjab, it now applies to 22 of India's 25 states and to 86.8 per cent of the country's 870 million people. It is applied in many states without insurgents. It has been used on poets and trade union leaders, opposition politicians, tribal hunters (their bows and arrows constitute a terrorist weapon) and peasants protesting against government plans to forcibly relocate 250,000 people to make way for the Narmada dam project.

Tada is used in a discriminatory way against Muslims. A climate of fear is being spread in India by extremist Hindu organisations. They say many of the country's 120 million Muslims secretly support hostile Pakistan. Mr Nair claims that over one third of Tada detainees are Muslims, although they comprise less than one-eighth of the population.

Even the Interior Minister, S B Chavan, concedes that Tada is being 'misused'. Sanjay Dutt's bail hearing is set for next week. If the Supreme Court bows to growing pressure, at least to do that, it may make it possible for thousands of other Indians, many of them inncocent, to go free until their trials, many years away. And many Indians believe that should be the first step towards dismantling Tada.

Sunil Dutt, Sanjay's father, said: 'The act was meant to fight insurgents. But my son is just a young actor, how can he be accused of waging war against India?'

(Photograph omitted)