Addressing the chief ministers of all states at a crucial meeting on the NCTC or National Counter Terrorism Centre, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today reiterated his stand and said that the anti-terror body "is not a Centre versus state issue." Further assuring the states, he added that the proposed body "will supplement the counter-terror mechanism and not supplant the capabilities of the states."
The new counter-terror agency is the brain-child of Home Minister P Chidambaram. It 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 say the agency has sweeping powers that violate the autonomy of state governments.
Through today's meeting that was held at the Vigyan Bhavan in the national capital, Dr Singh and Mr Chidambaram tried to find consensus on the matter that has turned into a huge political confrontation.
Mr Chidambaram began his address by spelling out the need for creating a national counter-terror agency. "Countering terrorism is a shared responsibility," he said, and then, wasted no time in saying that "there are instances where despite sharing information with states on imminent terror attacks, no action was taken because the state police had no capacity."
The NCTC is described by some chief ministers as an attack on federalism. Spearheading the opposition to the agency's proposed powers are the chief ministers of non-Congress states, most notably Mamata Banerjee. Her opposition is a matter of big worry for the government as her party, the Trinamool Congress, is a senior partner in the UPA coalition.
Ms Banerjee indicated yesterday that she remains deeply opposed to the NCTC. And today, she minced no words in stating her staunch opposition. "It is unfortunate that in utter disregard to these federal principles, the NCTC was set up by an executive order dated February 3, 2012 of the Union Home Ministry without adequate consultations with the states.
"These kind of unilateral steps of the Union Government in matters which fall within the jurisdictions of the States only increase the trust-deficit between the Centre and states," she said.
"It's an interference in the federal structure. The states and the Centre have their boundaries," she had said yesterday, sending across a message to the Centre that it was going to have a tough time trying to convince her today.
Besides Ms Banerjee, the chief ministers of at least 11 more states have registered their opposition to the NCTC. The powerful group of critics includes Narendra Modi from Gujarat, Naveen Patnaik from Odisha and J Jayalalithaa from Tamil Nadu.
The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister also took on the government at the meeting with a fiery speech. She slammed the Home Ministry's "casual attitude" and alleged that it "wants to belittle states and treat them like pawns on chess board." She complained that the Ministry did not send a copy of the NCTC order to Tamil Nadu. "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," she said.
Continuing her scathing attack on the Centre, she asked, "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 RA&W or the MI? Does it feel that state governments cannot be trusted with certain confidential information?"
The chief ministers allege that the NCTC has been empowered to search and arrest people 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.
But the Centre, while allaying the concerns of the states, reiterated the need for a strong anti-terror body. "With the threat India faces, it needs 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," Mr Chidambaram said at a press conference at the end of the NCTC meet. Despite the strong words by some Chief Ministers at the meeting, the Home Minister maintained that there was a "strong support for the anti-terror body" with "outright rejection of the ideas by three chief ministers".
Ahead of today's meeting, the Home Ministry circulated a set of Standard Operating Procedures for the operations wing of the NCTC, spelling out exactly how it will exercise its powers to search, seize or arrest - the provisions that had angered states the most. It has also promised to strengthen the powers of the Standing Council of NCTC, in which every state will be represented through its police chiefs.
With the climb-down on some provisions, will the Centre be able to convince the states? Well so far, it seems the stand-off is bound to continue.