The government's ambitious National Counter Terrorism Centre or NCTC, as it is now known, will not be operationalised anytime soon. At least that is what emerged after some tough talk and more than six hours of intense deliberations at a crucial meeting in the national capital today, attended by chief ministers of states. The meet that also had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in attendance failed to arrive at a consensus over the contentious anti-terror body.
As most Congress Chief Ministers supported the NCTC, it was clear that it would take some serious convincing for the non-Congress-ruled states to come around to the proposal - something that they have been vehemently opposed to so far. A fact apparent when Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, at the end of the meeting, said, "While many Chief Ministers have supported the NCTC, there are many who have given their qualified support and three Chief Ministers who have outrightly rejected it."
The NCTC, a brainchild of Mr Chidambaram, was conceived after the Mumbai attacks of 26/11. It was meant to be commissioned on March 1 but the launch wasn't operationalised after fierce opposition from a group of chief ministers who wrote to the Prime Minister. They allege that the counter-terror agency has sweeping powers that violate the autonomy of state governments and has snowballed into a major political confrontation. (Read: Centre vs states over NCTC - 10 big facts)
The government, thus, set about allaying the states' concerns today with the Prime Minister saying that the NCTC "is not a Centre versus state issue." In a bid to pacify the states, Dr Singh, in the meeting held at the Vigyan Bhavan in the national capital, said that the proposed counter-terror body "will supplement the counter-terror mechanism and not supplant the capabilities of the states." (Read: PM's full speech)
The Home Minister echoed the PM's assurance by saying that "counter-terrorism is a shared responsibility". Making a strong pitch for the NCTC, he later said, "With the threat India faces, I firmly believe that we need a counter-terrorism body...I told chief ministers that this gap cannot be filled by police, it needs to be filled by strong anti-terror body." (Watch)
But states opposed to the NCTC were clearly in no hurry to give their nod to the vexed project. As the meeting progressed, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa seemed to lead the charge against the new anti-terror agency. She alongwith her counterparts from at least 11 more states have registered their stiff opposition to the NCTC which, they claim, is an attack on the principles of federalism. The powerful group of critics includes Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal, Narendra Modi from Gujarat and Naveen Patnaik from Odisha.
Launching a tirade against the government over its "casual attitude" over the NCTC, Ms Jayalalithaa alleged that the Centre "wants to belittle states and treat them like pawns on chess board."
"The Tamil Nadu government did not even receive a copy of the order. Odisha CM shared a copy with me. Such is the casual attitude displayed by the Home Ministry, which borders on absolute disdain for the Tamil Nadu government. The fact that Home Ministry did not even send a copy of the order to state reveals the utter contempt the Centre has for the Tamil Nadu government," Ms Jayalalithaa said. (Read)
Continuing her scathing attack on the Centre, she said, "Does the MHA feel that their officials are more capable and more virtuous than the police personnel in the states? Does it feel that the Intelligence Bureau is more trustworthy than the R&AW or the MI?
Does it feel that state governments cannot be trusted with certain confidential information?" (Read: Strong words at NCTC meet - 10 big quotes)
| (Read: Analysis - Why intel experts oppose NCTC)
Singing chorus with Ms Jayalalithaa was Ms Banerjee who said, "Message should not go to the people that the Centre is trying to impose something which may not suit the federal structure... NCTC was done without consultation. My stand is that everybody wants to fight terrorism. There should not be any confusion, contradiction about it. But NCTC was notified without approval of Parliament. She also urged the government to "withdraw" the NCTC, citing that "all big states have opposed it". (Read)
The West Bengal chief minister's no to NCTC is particularly embarrassing and a serious cause of concern for the government. With 19 Lok Sabha MPs, her Trinamool Congress is the second largest party in the Congress-led UPA coalition, thus making her a crucial ally.
Calling the NCTC "unacceptable" in its present form, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik even suggested for a sub-committee headed by Ms Jayalalithaa to examine the proposed body. (Watch)
Mr Modi too called for a "rollback" of the proposal.
While the resistance from the non-Congress chief ministers was expected, it was the apprehension expressed by some from the Congress which proved to be the bad news for the government. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, for one, made it clear that his support to the NCTC was conditional. "I support NCTC on special conditions. Government should take state into confidence and all operations should be joint operations," Mr Gogoi said. (Watch)
He along with his Manipur counterpart, Omkar Ibobi Singh, also advised for a revision of the standard operating procedure.
The chief ministers allege that the NCTC has been empowered to search, seize and arrest without keeping the state government, police or anti-terror squad in the loop. In response, the Centre has altered the rules. Now, the senior most police officers in all states - the Director Generals of Police and the chiefs of anti-terror squads of all states - will be members of the Standing Council of the NCTC. They will be informed before the NCTC conducts an operation in their state.
Another core area of concern among the chief ministers is about the NCTC being kept under the purview of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) as also the way operations are proposed to be carried out even in exceptional cases. While promising to "examine the two issues", Mr Chidambaram added that, "the decision to locate NCTC in the IB was taken by the Government on the basis of recommendations of 2001 GoM." But his seeming justification of the present arrangement having being designed by then Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government failed to impress. "If NDA proposed NCTC under IB, that's water under the bridge," Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told NDTV.
There was a silver lining, though, with Mr Patnaik softening his stand on the controversial matter. One of the first to oppose the NCTC, Mr Patnaik favoured more consultations instead of an outright rejection as proposed others.
Given the pronounced disagreement over the NCTC at today's meeting, the Centre has "assured the Chief Ministers that all their suggestions would be carefully considered." For the time being, it's back to the drawing board for the government.