New Delhi: The Union government has warned the government of Orissa, the scene of violence against Christians over the past two weeks, invoking a rarely used constitutional provision that typically precedes the declaration of Central or President’s rule in a state if it goes unheeded.

A senior minister of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, government in New Delhi told Mint that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, on 4 September, personally asked home minister Shivraj Patil to issue a warning to the Orissa government led by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) under Article 355 of the Constitution. The minister didn’t want to be named.

A senior home ministry official, who also didn’t want to be named, confirmed New Delhi had indeed issued a directive to Orissa but declined to comment on whether this directive was under Article 355. The article says the Centre is bound to ensure that state governments carry out their constitutional responsibilities.

Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik and state home secretary T.K. Mishra couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Representatives of opposition parties that Mint spoke to were quick to label the government’s use of Article 355 as an act of war against a state ruled by an opposition party. BJD was part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that was in power between 1999 and 2004.

According to estimates by the Orissa government, 16 people, mainly Christians, have been killed and hundreds injured in anti-Christian violence that has swept through Orissa since late August when a Hindu leader was killed, allegedly by Maoist extremists. Thousands of Christians, mainly tribals, have fled their homes and are living in refugee camps.

Both the state and the Union governments claim that instances of violence have reduced. “Violence has come down but there were instances of some houses being burnt on Wednesday also,” Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the apex body of the Catholics in India, said.

A BJD lawmaker said the move was prompted by a desire to appease Christians. “You cannot subvert the constitutional process just to look good to a certain group of people,” said Tathagata Satpathy.

The Centre’s directive will be used by the BJP, which will term it “minority appeasement” and try to win Hindu votes, predicts Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor, school of international studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. But, he added, “no one will believe the BJP.”

Subhash Kashyap, a constitutional expert and former secretary general of the Lok Sabha said no Union government has used the provisions of Article 355 effectively. “It gives more powers than just issuing directives,” he said.

Significantly, Article 356 enables President’s rule.

In 2002, the NDA government successfully resisted calls from the opposition to issue directives under Article 355 to the BJP government in Gujarat in the wake of sectarian violence that left at least 1,000 people, largely Muslims, dead. Last year, the UPA resisted calls for directives being issued to the Left government in West Bengal after violence erupted in certain parts over the state’s land acquisition policy. The Left parties were then key allies of the UPA.

by Liz Mathew

Evangelical Fellowship of India