Late last week, the Union government sent advisories to Karnataka, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala to control communal violence against minorities there. It is a step in the right direction from a political and constitutional perspective.
There is controversy whether the advisories were sent under Article 355 of the Constitution, with reports suggesting that the letters sent by the Union home secretary did not make an explicit reference to this provision.
Article 355 mandates the Centre to see that states are run in accordance with the Constitution and also protect them from external aggression and internal disturbance. The wording of the letters does not matter, as the spirit is that of Article 355. The advisory to Karnataka was harsh and also asks the state to “report” the matter to the Centre.
Politically, the directive to the states had become imperative. Orissa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its allied parties. They have been in the grip of communal violence for some time now. In spite of the loss of life and property there, the state governments did precious little to douse these fires. This raises suspicion that such violence serves a political purpose.
Constitutionally, the republic has moved away from a state where the ham-handed dismissal of state governments under Article 356 (breakdown of constitutional machinery) was routine. Those abuses occurred for political reasons and not due to administrative or law and order problems. Misuse of Article 356 is now very tough, if not impossible: A spate of judicial verdicts and the odium surrounding such a step are too much for any government at the Centre.
Yet, if Article 356 is not available, what is to be done in those cases where deterioration in law and order heralds a possible breakdown of constitutional machinery? Article 355 provides an answer. The Centre has done well to use it. The BJP has no reason to oppose such advisories. Its leader L.K. Advani had demanded that one be sent to West Bengal in the case of the Nandigram violence last year.
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