The Communal Violence Bill — drafted by the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council — was vigorously opposed at the National Integration Council here on Saturday, largely by the NDA-ruled States, with even West Bengal, now ruled by the Congress' ally, the Trinamool Congress, joining the naysayers. If the key objection was that the proposed law encroached on the rights of the States in handling law and order, the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled States — as well as senior national leaders from the principal opposition — also read it as an anti-majority community document.
Responding to these arguments, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured the Council, in his concluding remarks, that nothing would be done to undermine the Constitution, according to Home Secretary R.K. Singh. “Let me assure you that we are committed to the federal structure which has served the country well,” the Prime Minister said.
The Chief Ministers who abstained included Narendra Modi (Gujarat), Nitish Kumar (Bihar), Jayalalithaa (Tamil Nadu), Mayawati (Uttar Pradesh) and Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal).
Though the official agenda had four points articulated by Home Minister P. Chidambaram at the outset — communalism, discrimination against minorities and tribals, civil disturbances and radicalisation of youth — it was the Communal Violence Bill that remained in the spotlight through the day-long deliberations, with only Congress Chief Ministers Prithviraj Chavan and Ashok Gehlot attempting to address all the issues.
The tone and tenor of the speeches made by the BJP Chief Ministers and national leaders, an NIC member told The Hindu, made it quite clear that they would make this controversial Bill a political issue.
Interestingly, Dr. Singh, in his opening remarks, highlighted the fact that members of the minority communities often felt they were being unfairly targeted by law enforcement agencies after violent incidents. While the law had to be enforced, he stressed, the investigating agencies needed to be “free from biases and prejudices of any kind” and the media should play a “constructive role in promoting peace and harmony in our society.”
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah suggested a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his State to “restore confidence” of the people in democratic institutions.
In the aftermath of a string of civil society protests, the Prime Minister significantly pointed out that the “excessive use of force often proves counter-productive” in civil disturbances. “We need to distinguish between criminal activities and misguided discontent that finds unlawful expression,” he said.
Later, Mr. Chavan said that while it was important “to understand the genesis of such agitations in the larger socio-economic perspective,” awareness had to be created that blocking roads, railways etc. impinged on the fundamental right of citizens to free movement, and sought an all-party consensus on this.
Earlier, admitting that lack of productive employment opportunities for youth was a factor aiding in their radicalisation, Dr. Singh appealed to the Council to unequivocally send out a message that violence could not be justified under any circumstance. He underscored the need for greater coordination between the Centre and the States in this context.
Simultaneously, he acknowledged the need to upgrade and strengthen the investigating agencies and the intelligence-gathering apparatus to counter the newer methods and technologies used by terrorists and Naxals. Of the 29 cases handed over to the National Investigation Agency, he said, charge sheets had been filed in 20.