Congress President Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday demanded an "independent and credible" inquiry into the violation of human rights in Sri Lanka even as she refused to comment on key United Progressive Alliance partner the Dravida Munnetra Kahzagam withdrawing support to the bgovernment at the Centre.
Voicing her pain and anguish over the "denial of legitimate political rights" to Sri Lankan Tamils, Gandhi dwelt at length on the issue at the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting in New Delhi.
Gandhi's remarks on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue came ahead of the DMK's announcement withdrawing support to the UPA.
"I have nothing to say now," Gandhi said when later asked about the pull out by DMK.
"The plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka is close to our hearts. Our support for equal rights and equal protection of the laws to them has been unwavering since the days of Indiraji and Rajivji.
"We are most pained at the manner in which their legitimate political rights continue to be denied to them. We are anguished by reports of unspeakable atrocities on innocent civilians and children, especially during the last days of the conflict in 2009," she said in her four-page speech.
The Congress president also spoke on the political challenges before the party ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and impending assembly polls this year in a number of states besides underlining the need to focus on gender issues including passage of the anti-rape Bill and measures like Lokpal for fighting corruption.
Maintaining that reports of atrocities in Sri Lanka cannot go un-investigated, Gandhi said, "That is why we demand for an independent and credible inquiry into the violation of human rights in Sri Lanka."
She also said that the plight of Indian fishermen, who are being detained or fired upon by the Sri Lankan navy, is a matter of great concern. "A permanent solution to the daily
violence against them is also imperative," Gandhi said.
Speaking on gender issues, the Congress president referred to the Delhi gang-rape cum murder case and said that after the consensus reached on the anti-rape Bill, "We should make every effort to see that these amendments are approved by both Houses before the recess begins (on March 22).”
Asking the party to face the upcoming assembly elections this year and the next Lok Sabha elections in 2014 with "confidence, professionalism and enthusiasm", she asked the partymen to counter the "intemperate and abusive language" and "deliberate falsehoods" of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
"The people have seen through the obstructionist tactics adopted by the BJP in Parliament and the deliberate falsehoods spread by it outside.
"The use of intemperate and abusive language by the BJP about our party and its leaders goes beyond the pale of civilised discussion and debate. Are we going to take this lying down. Certainly not. We will maintain our dignity and take our fight to the people," Gandhi said.
Maintaining that Congress's fight against the "malaise of corruption" continues in earnest, she said, "We are committed to the early passage of the Lokpabl bill."
Gandhi said the Congress-led government has already taken on board many of the suggestions made by various political parties on the Lokpal issue and will continue to press for its early adoption.
At the same time, "We also believe that Lokpal by itself will not solve the problem of corruption in daily life of the aam aadmi. Until we revamp the way we provide services and benefits to the common man, we will not make a sizeable dent on corruption."
The Congress president cited the UPA's ambitious Direct Benefits Transfer Programme, also called 'Aap Ka Paisa Aap Ke Haath' in this regard, noting that the measure will ensure effective delivery of all cash payments like scholarships, pensions, incentives, wages and some subsidies directly to the beneficiaries at their doorstep.
"This will eliminate leakages and pilferage. Both the Centre and the states are part of this initiative. Even so, we must, as a party, take an active interest in its implementation," she told the party MPs.
This was the first meeting of Gandhi with party MPs after the Jaipur Chintan Shivir.
Gandhi said the shivir and the AICC meeting have provided a clear roadmap for the party and told the MPs that they have a key role in implementing the commitments expressed in the Jaipur declaration.
Hailing the Union budget as "progressive and pragmatic", Gandhi said that given the circumstances, the budget has rightly focused on reviving economic growth and bringing inflation under check.
"It is reassuring that despite tough economic and financial conditions, it continues to give top priority to our flagship programmes, to the interest of the aam aadmi and the most marginalised," she said, praising the rail budget for laying the much needed stress on better services with focus on safety and sanitation.
The recent terror strikes in Srinagar and Hyderabad also came in for mention in Gandhi's speech. Extending her heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families, she said these incidents show that "we simply cannot lower our vigil".
Gandhi said "remarkable progress" has been made in the last few years in Jammu and Kashmir "under the leadership and personal interest taken by the prime minister".
"Economic development has gathered pace. The launch of rail services in the Valley, is an example of how much infrastructure and connectivity have expanded...Tourism has been flourishing. A more trusting atmosphere was in the making until it was interrupted by certain incidents and the terrorist attack on a CRPF camp," she said.
"Yet we should take note of the cry of pain and anguish emanating from some sections of society there," she said.
The Congress president expressed happiness that one of the key recommendations of the party's sub-group for setting up a national bank for women and women self-help groups, found mention in the budget proposals.
Hailing this as a "landmark announcement" that needed to implemented urgently, Gandhi said that since SHGs have transformed the lives of rural women in several parts of the country, the government is now aiming to take the SHG model to every part of the country.
"Through Aajeevika, the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, we are now aiming to take the SHG model to every part of the country, touching the lives of seven crore women. The new national bank for women will play a key role in providing credit to these SHGs," the Congress president said.
She recalled that the party had pledged in the Jaipur declaration that women, particularly those vulnerable, would be provided with a decent pension after the age of 60 years and that destitute, deserted and widowed women between the age of 18 and 60 years are taken care of.
"I am confident that the government will take into account and make a suitable announcement when the National Social Assistance Programme is restructured," she said.
Gandhi said the Jaipur Chintan Shivir provided an opportunity for a free and frank discussion on many issues and that "we must institutionalise such interactions at various levels".
Noting that a number of landmark bills will come for discussion in Parliament after the recess, the Congress president said that "we will strive for a consensus on them".
"Our party, too, must argue forcefully in favour of these legislations both inside Parliament and outside," Gandhi said.
Terming as "historic" the Right to Fair Compensation in Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, she said that landowners and landless will benefit significantly and tribal communities will be empowered by this.
Gandhi said the National Food Security Bill is a key commitment in the Congress’s 2009 manifesto.
"This will free people from hunger, our children from malnutrition and ensure that no one starves in our country. Once cleared by the Cabinet, we must push for its passage in this session," she said.
Maintaining that the Congress-led UPA government heralded a new culture of transparency by enacting Right To Information Act in 2005, she said the new bill dealing with the redressal of public grievances and time-bound delivery of public services will take the RTI revolution further.
Referring to the Delhi gangrape case, Gandhi said, "A few months ago, we have mourned the loss of a courageous young woman. She became the face of our nation's women -- its mothers, its sisters and its daughters. The government immediately constituted a high-powered committee under Justice J S Verma to suggest changes in existing laws to provide for speedy justice and enhanced punishment in cases of sexual assault and atrocities.
"The Cabinet has just approved several far-reaching amendments to the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act. It has taken note of the consensus reached at the all-party meeting. We should make every effort to see that these amendments are approved by both Houses before the recess begins," Gandhi told the MPs.