NEW DELHI, India, March 15, Reuter: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s ruling party on Tuesday cleared a major hurdle to imposing emergency rule in the north Indian state of Punjab where Sikhs are fighting for an in dependent homeland.

Gandhi’s Congress (I) Party pushed through a Constitution amendment bill in the Upper House of Parliament and secured a two thirds majority needed for it. .

Almost the entire opposition walked out when the bill was put to the vote. It empowers the government to abridge fundamental rights and suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

Punjab, where the State Assembly has been dissolved, is being ruled directly by New Delhi and the government is using antiterrorism laws to detain people without trial,

The bill would now be sent to the Lower House where Gandhi’s party has a four fifths majority in the 543-seat house. It will become law when the Lower House vote approval and the President of India give his assent.

Sikh leaders have already denounced the move but the government has said it needs greater powers to deal with freedom fighters in Punjab who allegedly daily engage security forces in gun battles.

More than 350 people have already been killed in Punjab this year against nearly 1,200 last year.

The Congress Party would have lost its two thirds majority on April 2 when 63 members of the Upper House retire and the government was keen to bring the bill before that.

The opposition wanted a full scale debate in the hope that it would extend beyond April 2.

It will only be the second time that emergency rule will be imposed anywhere in India,

In 175, Rajiv’s mother Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a nationwide emergency and jailed thousands of her opponents. But she lifted it in 1977 just after she lost a Parliamentary election and the first opposition government was formed.

Many of the Sikh leaders and members of Parliament were among those jailed.

The first draft of the bill passed on Tuesday was vague about the area where the emergency would be imposed but on opposition’s insistence it was specifically declared that the rule would apply only to Punjab.

Minister of State for Home Affairs P. Chidambaram said he hoped the new draft would clear “misgivings and apprehensions” voiced by the opposition.

It provides for emergency rule because of internal disturbances and the threat to the integrity of India.

Chidambaram said the legislation was brought in national interest.

Punjab’s moderate Sikh government headed by Chief Minister Surjit Singh Barnala was dismissed last May and since the dismissal the State is being governed by New Delhi.

The government has said it would extend its rule beyond a one year period provided in the Constitution and a separate bill would be brought soon for another amendment,

In Chandigarh, state capital of Punjab, Sikh political leaders attacked the bill and appealed to the Indian public to oppose it,

“In the guise of controlling law and order which is its own creation, the Central government is trying to impose emergency, curb fundamental rights and civil liberties”, said Prakash Singh Badal, leader of the United Akali Dal Party and former Punjab Chief Minister.

Surjit Singh Barnala, Punjab’s moderate Chief Minister dismissed by Gandhi last year, told reporters: “now it is clear that the Central government is going to unleash further oppression in Punjab’.

“These emergency measures will not solve any problem it is a political issue which needs a political settlement”.

Article extracted from this publication >> March 18, 1988