Countering terrorism

Centre-State ties: Will an over-arching agency threaten the federal edifice

Countering terrorism

“…When we move upwards, serious questions concerning Constitutional responsibilities and division of powers will arise. Also, difficult questions would be posed and answered regarding the current responsibilities of different organisations. Questions concerning jurisdiction and turf would also arise…” -Union Home Minister P Chidambaram on National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), while delivering a lecture on Dec 29, 2009.

When he made these remarks more than two years ago, Chidambaram, perhaps, did not anticipate that these very issues would trigger charges of infringement on the rights of states by over a dozen chief ministers, including allies of the Congress party, the lead partner of the ruling UPA coalition at the Centre. He would not have known that more CMs would join the bandwagon as the cries that the NCTC provisions hurt states’ powers reached a crescendo. Both, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram have written separate letters to the CMs but with little effect.

The controversial NCTC caps a series of Central decisions in the last one year or so opposed by the states, putting the spotlight on Centre-state relations. Some states have been crying hoarse over the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill, the Goods and Services Tax, FDI in multi-brand retail, amendment Bill granting police powers to Railway Protection Force, the Teesta water sharing issue, the appointment of Lokayukta in Gujarat, education reforms including the proposed common medical entrance examination and so on.

However, no issue caught the imagination of CMs as much as NCTC. It was also the first time in  decades that a large number of CMs with diverse political ideologies made common cause of one issue. Their main concern was arming the NCTC with police powers which amounted to usurping the rights of the states. Under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Section 43(A) empowers police to arrest and search, powers that are decidedly with the states. But then, should terrorism be treated on par with law and order problems or differently by empowering specialist agencies as terror attacks are occurring with frightening frequency?

The attack on the Centre also comes amid criticism that the Singh government does not speak to the chief ministers of states on key issues. There have been whisper campaigns against the Centre’s implementation of popular schemes such as rural job guarantee (MGNREGS) and urban renewal mission (JNNURM) – which requires the states to partake the expenditure – without consulting them (states). Central Government’s ally and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee created a furore in Parliament against the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill saying the Lokayukta was an imposition on the states. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has lashed out at the Centre for proposing to vest the RPF with police powers.

For a beleaguered government, already reeling under the weight of corruption scandals, adverse court verdicts against its decisions and rift among its ministers to name just a few, the NCTC issue erupted when UPA least expected it. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, who first wrote to the PM, referred to ‘draconian laws’ that remind him of Emergency days when police were let loose on the non-Congress politicians. While a comparison between then and now may be far-fetched, some experts like B Raman, former officer of the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), have voiced fears that the NCTC could be misused. “Such secret agencies should not have powers of arrest, no democracy allows it,” argues  Raman.

Former home secretary G K Pillai agrees that states should have been consulted but believes their fears are exaggerated. “Forming of NCTC can be deferred until consultation with the states is completed,” he suggests, noting that the National Investigation Agency to probe terror attacks has also been vested with arrest and search powers. “Representatives of state intelligence bodies are part of NCTC,” he adds.

Congress MP Manish Tewari, who recently moved a Private Member’s Bill in Lok Sabha seeking to give legal base to the intelligence agencies so that they come under Parliament’s scrutiny, however, says there was no design flaw in NCTC nor any lapse on the part of Chidambaram.

States’ fears

The CMs fear that the NCTC, initiated through a four-page executive order on February 3, could be used to harass political opponents of the party/coalition in power at the Centre. The parliamentary standing committee on home affairs too has opposed the provisions of the agency. The committee, which has members from the ruling Congress too, grilled Home Secretary R K Singh and insisted that the proposal be kept in abeyance till a consensus was reached.

CPI leader and Rajya Sabha MP D Raja told Deccan Herald: “The states’ concerns are genuine or else why would so many CMs, including UPA allies Mamata and Omar Abdullah (Jammu and Kashmir CM) express reservations?”

“The Centre is centralising powers in a federal arrangement. The decisions of the Centre should not infringe on powers of the states and adversely impact Centre-state relations.

The problem is the Prime Minister’s Office has become all-too powerful and calls the shots,” he says, adding, “these issues should be discussed in the right fora. What is the Inter-State Council for? Convene it and discuss these issues. Or raise it in Parliament, that will give it the stamp of authority.”

Anupama Roy of Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says several issues like Lokayukta were cause for long-term Centre-State tensions, with the Centre asserting its legislative competence. She observed that NCTC was marked out as different and did not fall into ordinary law and order category.“When it is politicised, as it is done now, it falls into a tension area,” she explains.

Are states less consulted then? She adds, “States do have de-facto autonomy but consultation is something Centre needs to do.”

An article in this regard in the latest issue of CPM’s journal, ‘People’s Democracy’, says though the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State relations was formed in 1983 and submitted its report in 1988, most of its recommendations were gathering dust. “The M M Punchhi Commission was appointed in April 2007 to look into this issue. It submitted its report in 2010 but neither an informed debate has taken  place on its recommendations nor has anything substantial been implemented.”

Different plane

While states are right in pointing out the trampling of their rights, there is a need to treat terrorism, which has become a global menace in a short span, from a different wavelength. Also, states cannot continue to be stubbornly opposed to positive economic decisions of the Centre. The Union government on its part, needs to show flexibility, consult states frequently and take them into confidence.

The opposition to Lokayukta Bill, NCTC etc only show that states have turned increasingly assertive and are prepared to come together to fight for their rights.

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