Deconstructing federalism

India’s founding fathers saw decentralisation as creating living social spaces around constitutional protections blending together pride of ‘citizenship’ with the richness of multi-cultural identities.

Updated - June 07, 2015 01:36 am IST

Published - June 07, 2015 12:53 am IST



The cascading collapse of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the merger of the two Germanys in the early 1990s and the rapid unfolding of information-driven globalisation and terrorism have since raised the spectre of disintegration for most multicultural nations. But this also makes India a mystery wrapped in a puzzle! How has India, in face of daunting conditions of abject poverty, deep-seated parochialism, growing economic disparities, incessant communal and caste violence, continued to stand out as the world's largest experiment in building multicultural democratic federalism?

While democracy today is the sine qua non of a successful multicultural state, untempered grass-root democracy can unleash majoritarian rule and marginalise minorities. Likewise, federalism can promote centrifugal forces of ultra-regionalism and secessionism. The magic lies in balancing the 'political' with the 'cultural'; achieve integration without assimilation and earn loyalties through providing autonomy to multiple identities allowing them to thrive but within an ever evolving constitutional framework.

Jhumpa Mukherjee uses a multi-case study method to examine the creation of India's provinces, union territories, regional and district councils to showcase how various constitutional innovations have ensured India's unity in the face of such veritable diversities. Unlike most studies on India's decentralisation focusing on political devolution of power, she presents it as a process of accommodation that not just ensures survival and growth of multiculturalism but also ensures India's “unity through diversity” that can provide lessons for other.

Multicultural decentralisation

India’s founding fathers never viewed decentralisation as mere administrative tool to address this complex web of ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic diversities. They saw this as creating living social spaces around constitutional protections blending together pride of 'citizenship' with the richness of multicultural identities. The Constitution provides for not just individual but also collective rights, rights of minorities, separate personal laws and special protections and affirmative action to ensure equity and justice for all.

The Sixth Schedule and Article 371 of the Constitution provide for autonomy and protection of tribal cultures. Each of these arrangements is underwritten by internal democratic procedures to protect new minorities inside them. The Bodo Autonomous Council provides for nomination of members from non-Bodo communities not represented through elections. Similarly, other than Bodo voters, residents living there for over 12 years are given voting rights to elect members to this Council.

While the British created bifurcated provinces for administrative convenience, the founding fathers of India spent enormous energy debating the need for linguistic reorganisation of India’s provinces. In India’s neighbourhood, the imposition of a single language resulted in bifurcation in Pakistan and civil war in Sri Lanka. In India’s case, language was often the camouflage for local grievances of exclusion from opportunities.

Language and State formation

The book provides interesting insight into the debates in various Committees and amongst important leaders. Gandhi was inclined in favour of Hindustani replacing English while Nehru was sceptical of recognising territorial claims on the basis of language. Ambedkar did not wish to see separate linguistic states resulting in separate official languages. The JVP (Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhabhai Patel, and Pattabhi Sitaramayya) Committee report of April 1949 created the basis for a Telugu state of Andhra Pradesh as also for reorganisation of states under State Reorganisation Commission set up in December 1953.

But her studies of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab, reveal that it was more often a sense of marginalisation that triggered demands for separate state. Also, each of these movements produced distinct reflexes from both within and from the Central leadership. The fruition of each of these involved different timeframes and different levels of satisfaction. The book also shows how, in spite of continued reorganisation of federal India, no state is linguistically homogenous.

What makes this constant reorganisation of federation effective is that new sub-units have created new linguistic minorities yet, given the inbuilt constitutional protections, none of these new minorities have demanded a separate province. Articles 29, 345, and 347 of Constitution have ensured protection of these minorities to preserve their own language and culture. But creation of Telangana shows that there can always be exceptions.

The Northeast generates mixed reactions. The controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was last month extended to cover all districts of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam. The author devotes two full chapters on India’s tryst with its tribal populations in India’s northeast. As early as in 1869, the British had underlined the need for a “separate procedural machinery” for the tribals through their Garo Hills Act. But unlike protagonists of linguistic states, the tribals were never interested in state power and this was evident for their large scale exclusion from India's freedom movement.

Accordingly, while national leaders were reluctant to create linguistic states, most were agreeable not just to ensure autonomy for tribals, not just to protect their language but conscious of their rights to land and forest use. Nehru cautioned against imposing mainstream institutions on them though he wanted to train tribals in modern governance. The Constituent Assembly had set up a sub-committee under Gopinath Bordoloi that recommended North-East Frontier Areas to be governed by Assam but Nehru ensured that it was the Government of India that governed these regions.

However, the Sino-India war of 1962 followed by Nehru’s passing away in 1964 was to compound their situation. The introduction of Panchayati Raj from 1969 and demographic influx of Bengalis during the 1971 war re-enforced their mistrust. Again, creating the separate states of Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland created new minorities. The author devotes a chapter to ‘subregional’ movements like Bodoland Territorial Council and Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council to show how the Indian state has kept this enormous polyglot together.

By deconstructing the complex nature of India’s piecemeal integration of myriad groups from 1960s to 1990s, the author seeks to demystify the stereotype of the Central government having been aloof to local sentiments. But she endorses that this integration has involved processes of accommodation as well as coercion which she sees as “necessary in the larger interest of the society” and has “prevented the region from degenerating into another Bosnia.” This may seem rather statist and draw censure. But she also shows how not all problems have been resolved and how there are newer fault lines that call for greater innovation and imagination on part of our leaders.

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