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Contortions in Delhi

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

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The acts and articulations by government leaders in New Delhi speak of a Central government that has disregarded its constitutional obligations to ensure peace in Gujarat, in its eagerness to appease the rampaging mob.

VISHWA HINDU PARISHAD supremo Ashok Singhal is not given to excessive delicacy in his utterances. While his confederates in the Bharatiya Janata Party were mounting a desperate rearguard action in the Rajya Sabha to ease the burden of public odium on the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat, Singhal in Lucknow issued the astonishing statement that the events in Gujarat were "a matter of pride". "Islamic terror", whose malevolent hand was evident in the Godhra incident, had been dealt a fatal blow by the "Hindu awakening", he declared. The message of Gujarat, he said, would be carried to the rest of the country: "Gujarat has shown us the way and our journey will begin and end on the same path."

Congress spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy was quick to demand Singhal's arrest under Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code, which concerns crimes of incitement on religious and sectarian grounds. In obvious embarrassment, the Union Home Minister assured the Rajya Sabha that irrespective of the source from which they emanated, such statements deserved the strongest condemnation. He would not, however, commit himself on any action against his erstwhile associate in the campaign for the Ram Janmabhoomi at Ayodhya.

Advani assured the Rajya Sabha that the Central government would fulfil all its obligations under Article 355 of the Constitution. He would not go into specifics and had to stretch and contort to work himself out of the conundrum in which the BJP had placed itself by endorsing a parliamentary motion that tacitly censured the government. The resolution, which expressed serious concern and anguish at the situation in Gujarat, called upon the government to "intervene effectively under Article 355".

In its wording, Article 355 is fairly unambiguous: "It shall be the duty of the Union to protect every State against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the Government in every State is carried on in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution." Experts argue that the word "shall" imposes a compelling obligation unlike the more permissive "should", which could be interpreted as a clause calling for the best possible endeavour. Unfortunately, in a context of highly partisan and contentious interventions in the realm of Centre-State relations, Article 355 has not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny and analysis as the immediately following one, which enables the Union government to dismiss a State government if that government is unable to ensure constitutional governance.

In its language and intent, Article 355 was considered to be in consonance with the federal character of the Constitution, since it was analogous to Article 4(4) of the U.S. Constitution, which lays down that the federal government "shall guarantee to every State of the Union a republican form of government". If anything, the obligations on the Union government in the Indian federal scheme are more stringent because unlike in the U.S., under the Indian Constitution residual powers rest with the Union.

Advani's formulation in the Rajya Sabha was that Article 355 envisaged a cooperative mode of functioning between Centre and State, unlike Article 356 which indicated an "adversarial" relationship. He conceded with evident regret that the violence in Gujarat had set back India's efforts to present itself on the world stage as a reliable ally in the war against terrorism. In sober contrast to Singhal's vituperation, he admitted that the consequence of the violence against the minority community had been the strengthening of the influence of Islamic jehadi elements in the region. All the efforts to manoeuvre Pakistan into a corner had been squandered on this count. "This is one of the reasons," said Advani, "why we should stop the violence in Gujarat either by Hindus or Muslims." The Home Minister also claimed that intelligence agencies had been intercepting messages which indicated that militants in Jammu and Kashmir were capitalising on the strife in Gujarat and rendering material support to elements seeking to keep the cauldron boiling.

Advani was unable to articulate what measures the Centre had initiated under Article 355 in order to restore order. He convinced nobody with his effort to cast a number of uncoordinated responses under the rubric of this constitutional provision - from initial calls for calm, to visits by various Central Ministers, the sanction of a Rs.150-crore rehabilitation package and, finally, the appointment of the former Director-General of the Punjab Police, K.P.S. Gill, as security adviser to the State administration. Since all these measures, singly and cumulatively, had proven to be inadequate, the Centre was in obvious default of the compelling constitutional obligations imposed on it by Article 355. But this was an issue that the Home Minister preferred to evade.

The great giveaway came from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who informed the Rajya Sabha that the Centre had indeed considered the option of dismissing the Narendra Modi government under Article 356. The option, he said, was quickly discarded for fear that it would lead to more violence. On the terrain of principle, this was a shameful admission that a delinquent Chief Minister could plunge a State into chaos and evade all accountability through the crudest form of blackmail. It speaks of a Central government that disregards its constitutional obligations in its eagerness to appease the rampaging mob. And in the realm of reality, Vajpayee's statement seemed oblivious to the fact that violence has persisted even with Modi remaining in office. How much worse matters could have got with his dismissal is to most observers an inconsequential question in the context of a State administration that has already plumbed the depths.

At a later meeting of the parliamentary consultative committee attached to the Home Ministry, Advani proved even more obscure in rationalising the Centre's conduct. Advani insisted that the dispatch of Gill - quite the centrepiece of the operation to restore peace - had been decided in consultation with the State government. This did not satisfy the Opposition members, especially in the context of well-publicised reports of disgruntlement within the State Cabinet over the move, and Modi's own initial resistance to Gill's assumption of office.

Advani replayed his stock theme of interference from across the border, warning darkly that Islamic militant groups and criminal elements sheltering in Pakistan were not innocent of complicity in the violence. He insisted, though, that the State government was more than capable of restoring order on its own. But as the senior Congress MP Arjun Singh pointed out, the Home Minister's locutions were little more than an effort to evade responsibility, by classifying every measure - trivial or otherwise, effective or otherwise - under the responsibilities imposed by Article 355.

Much heat was generated both in Parliament and in the committee over the reported move by the State government to shut down the camps where riot-affected civilians were sheltering. Somnath Chatterjee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in particular, produced official documents ascribed to the district administration in the affected areas, which spoke of the firm resolve to close down camps by the end of May. Every denial that was issued by the Home Ministry was of course quickly subverted by a torrent of revelations in the media. Whatever may be the belief of the Central government, Article 355 notwithstanding, the State government in Gujarat obviously has different intentions.

Vajpayee has, in between denouncing "jehadi Islam" in recent times, often reflected about the varieties of Hindutva in evidence today, some of which he would prefer to maintain a distance from. Advani himself has conceded that the plank of cultural nationalism that he crafted in the early-1990s is today under siege, though he would remain steadfast in his advocacy of it. In a moment of candour he admitted that the ire that he faces today from various sections is unprecedented. Not even during his highly divisive rath yatra of 1990 did he confront such antagonism, he says.

Modi was of course a star organiser of that infamous motorised odyssey from Somnath, which had set its sights on Ayodhya but was arrested at Sitamarhi in Bihar. Less than two years later, he was a visible and constant presence in Murli Manohar Joshi's ritual yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, that ended in a farcical flag hoisting ceremony at Srinagar's Lal Chowk. Today, the understudy has outgrown his mentors and is seemingly compelling them to descend to his level of crudity. And the strategists of the Hindutva movement are left with few face-saving options as a tide of hostile public opinion builds up both domestically and internationally.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 25, 2002.)

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