Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi on Monday stressed the need for instilling a sense of security and fearlessness in all sections of society.

He was speaking at the second of five consultation meetings on the party’s manifesto for the general election scheduled for 2014.

The trigger was the recent outbreak of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar, a subject that dominated the discussions. Mr. Gandhi, describing his visit on Sunday to the camps where Muslims have set up temporary home after fleeing their villages, recalled what a young boy there told him: he was too frightened to return to his village.

“No person of any community or caste should ever be scared in India. This is a secular country,” Mr Gandhi said. Monday’s meeting was held to seek the views and demands of the minorities at the grassroots level for inclusion in the manifesto. The participants at the discussion stressed that there was need to create conditions so that the over 40,000 Muslims living in the relief camps were able to return to their homes. On Sunday, Mr. Gandhi, after visiting the camps and a Jaat village, spoke of the need for “mediation” to ensure that both communities could live in harmony again.

Union Minority Affairs Minister K. Rahman Khan faced the wrath of some participants who wanted to know when the government would implement schemes for the minorities, given there were just a few months left before the elections. Mr. Khan pointed out that 69 of the recommendations made by the Sachar Committee had been accepted. The participants also told Mr. Gandhi that it was time the party spoke to the ground-level representatives about the problems of the community rather than a handful of Muslim leaders, party sources said.

Raising the issue of the Muzaffarngar riots, Harcharan Singh Josh, former member of the National Commission for Minorities, questioned the role of the Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh, alleging that the party had played a similar role on earlier occasions. He suggested that the Congress concentrate on the Lok Sabha seats in 90 minority-dominated districts.

Representatives from the Muslim community also made a strong pitch for the passage of the Communal Violence Bill, as well as reservation for the minorities. Responding to the demand for reservation, Mr. Gandhi said that while such a move could be a solution, it alone would not be enough to raise the economic and social status of the minority community. While members of the Jain community demanded the minority status, Christians raised the issue of the Kandhmal riots. , Mr. Gandhi emphasised that the key issue was to create leadership. “Until we open up processes, until we encourage leadership, problems will not be solved. The problem at all levels is of developing leadership.”

Later, at a press conference, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said that members of the Sikh community in Gujarat were looking for legal options to ensure that no community was forced to migrate from any State.

He said issues of security, peace, education and job opportunities dominated the meeting.

The Congress manifesto, he added, would also contain something on justice for minority youths languishing in jail on terror charges.

On the question of reservation for the Dalit Christians and a 4.5 per cent quota for the backward minorities in the OBC categories, the meeting saw pleas that courts be requested to expedite decisions in such matters.

Monday’s was the second meeting as part of the manifesto consultation process, which is being spearheaded by Rahul. It is in line with Mr. Gandhi’s call for “opening the doors and windows of politics” to the common man to include him in formulating policies and programmes of the government.

At the party’s first consultation facilitated by the SC, ST and OBC departments, Mr. Gandhi had said that thus far, policymaking (what goes into a party manifesto) and the selection of candidates had been done behind closed doors, with the political process restricted to 500-odd people. Promising to open up the system and ensuring grassroots participation in the framing of policies, he said: “It is a narrow elite that constitutes the political establishment, and each party is run by a narrower group.”

If the first two daylong consultations have been on issues relating to the SCs, the STs and the OBCs and the minorities, the next three will be on women, youth and education and the last will be on entrepreneurship, industry and economic growth. The party hopes to have a draft ready by January-end, and thereafter it will be thrown open for a public debate. A website, www.incmanifesto.in, was created on October 23, and around 9,000 suggestions have already poured in.

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