New Delhi: Chief ministers of 21 states attended the meeting today chaired by the Prime Minister. The National Integration Council has met after three years.
The council is meant to look at issues like national integration and secularism, and combat communalism, linguist and casteism. Many attendees said given this week's bomb blast in Delhi, a discussion on terror should have been high on the agenda. However, it was the Communal Violence Bill that became the focus.
The draft of this bill has been developed by the National Advisory Council or NAC, a group of activists and civil society representatives chaired by Sonia Gandhi. The NAC is meant to advise the government on major policies.
"We need to recognize that members of the minority community often have a perception of being unfairly targeted. While the law should take its course, we should ensure that the investigating agencies are free from bias and prejudices," said Dr Manmohan Singh. (Read Full Text: PM speech at National Integration Council meet)
However, the BJP and other opposition parties are opposed to the NAC's draft which intends to protect religious minorities, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes during communal violence. Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, who attended the meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said the proposed legislation was "dangerous" as it would "encourage communalism" rather than curbing it by furthering the divide between majority and minority communities.
Ms Swaraj said it is wrong for the proposed Act to presume that those belonging to the majority community are always guilty of starting communal violence. "It is also wrong to assume that a person born in a particular community would belong to the majority everywhere in the country. Some communities are a majority in one region and a minority in another," the BJP leader said.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar voiced concern over certain provisions in the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Regulations) Bill 2011, saying it may create an "impression" among the people at large that the majority community is "always responsible for communal incidents."
The bill also endows the centre with the power to intervene during riots in a state. "We are opposed to anything which undermines the federal structure of the country," said Left leader Sitaram Yechury.
What is trickier for the government in terms of political maneuvering is the fact that one of its biggest allies, Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress have also rejected the NAC's version of the Communal Violence Bill. The party reportedly has objections to the bill hurting the federal structure of the country.
Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati criticised the Centre for seeking views of the state government on the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill without providing a draft of the bill to it. "It is important to tell that the Centre has not sent the proposed communal violence bill to the state government. Hence it is not the opportune moment to comment on the Bill," Mayawati said in a written speech read out at the meeting.
The government says it will consult ''religious'' and ''linguistic'' groups before presenting the bill in parliament. In his address to the NIC Home Minister P Chidambaram said, "The biggest challenge is the use of violence as an instrument of protest or an instrument of change. Insurgency, militancy and terrorism threaten to unravel the idea of India."
"I would like to ask this Council to guide us on how to deal with the issues that are included in the agenda. In particular, I would like to ask you whether the institutions that we have - of both government and civil society - are adequate to meet these grave challenges and, if they are not, how do we strengthen these institutions or set up new institutions."