The ironies of small States

The current political instability in Uttarakhand and the past experience of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand pose some questions. Have they carried forward the ideals that informed their struggle for statehood?

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

Published - April 28, 2016 12:56 am IST

The >political crisis in Uttarakhand and subsequent developments have once again catapulted a number of rather familiar questions onto the political terrain. These range from political instability, to what was once inelegantly called ‘horse-trading’, to the containment capacity of the anti-defection law, to the regrettable tendency of parties controlling the Central government to inexorably expand their writ. There is, however, another concern that needs to be registered in this context, the readiness of State leaders to violate their own obligations as representatives of the political public, and vitiate democracy.

The formation of three small States in 2000, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and >Uttarakhand nourished hopes that democracy would be deepened. Smaller political units facilitate contact between the government and the governed, and enable local populations to imprint their opinions and interests onto the consciousness of their representatives. This belief is, of course, not shared by many political theorists of democracy. “Sovereignty,” wrote the great defender of direct democracy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “for the same reason as makes it inalienable, cannot be represented; it lies essentially in the general will, and will does not admit of representation: it is either the same or the other; there is no intermediate possibility.”

Three States — promises belied Yet the complexity of modern societies renders direct or face-to-face democracy a remote possibility. Representative democracy inserts a third set of political agents to mediate between the first two: the citizen and the state. Notably, whereas the citizen is the primary unit of political society, the status of the representative is derivative. Representatives are expected to proxy for the represented, obliged to further their interests, and held accountable for acts of omission and commission. In democracies, citizens have command over who they want to be represented by as well as the competence to define issues worthy of representation. Outside the domain of often obnoxious party politics lies an entire terrain of collective action through which citizens press their collective will upon those who rule.

The other reason for > welcoming small States is that in each case, demands for statehood followed struggles against injustice. Yet, when the time came, the fight against injustice was simply disregarded. The initiative by the National Democratic Alliance government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee was presented as political sagacity; that to fulfil their needs, tribal and hill people require political autonomy. Have small States managed to meet the demands of their people? Have they learnt from struggles that have gone down in history as politically momentous? Or have they, once constituted, gone their own way, of amassing power?

The answer to the third question is easily answered; State leaders have shown great willingness to play into the hands of the Central government, presumably for a price. In the process, representatives have forgotten the history of their own societies. But they fail to recall that history cannot be disremembered, it constantly nudges us to recollect past struggles against injustice in these States.

Consider that from the late 1970s till 1991, when the visionary leader of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM), Shankar Guha Niyogi, was assassinated by the henchmen of the liquor lobby, India witnessed one of the most transformative social movements in the country. The CMM focussed not only on the struggle for wages, but also on alternative development strategies that inspired radical political consciousness among the Dalits and the Adivasis. And it gave to us an enormously creative interpretation of citizenship. A citizen of Chhattisgarh is one who contributes to the productive resources and does not exploit people even if she is not born in the region. Birth is as immaterial as an autonomous state. What is of importance is democracy that gives to people dignity and control over their lives.

It was precisely this aspect of justice that went missing when Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. Today, according to the 2011 India Human Development Report, the incidence of poverty among Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) households in Chhattisgarh is much higher than in other social groups in the State and the country. Chhattisgarh ranks low on Human Development Index rankings, with more malnourished women, underweight children, and illiterate people than the national average. People in the densely populated forests and hills of Dantewada and Bastar, where a majority of the STs live, are the most illiterate. Ironically, Chhattisgarh is a mineral-rich and power-surplus State.

The same report tells us that Jharkhand, with vast natural resources, accounted for 70 per cent of the Gross State Domestic Product of Bihar before 2000. Yet it remains one of the most economically backward States of the country. The SC and ST population constitutes around 12 per cent and over 26 per cent of the State’s population. Poverty figures in these two communities are much higher than corresponding figures at the all-India level. A higher percentage of children of the communities suffer from malnutrition and illiteracy.

It is not surprising that into the political vacuum created by systemic injustice in both States have stepped the Maoists, with their ideology of a new world geared towards the interests of the poor and the oppressed.

The irony is that the demand for statehood in Jharkhand emerged from a 200-year-old struggle against exploitation. In the 1970s the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha led by prominent communists and tribal leaders focussed on the direct delivery of justice to exploited tribal communities in the mineral-rich areas, in agrarian districts, and in plantations. They launched a concerted effort against displacement. The demand for statehood was part of the demand of control over resources by tribal communities. Today it is precisely these demands for justice that have been put on the back burner by leaders whose own biographies are soiled by sordid compromises with national parties. The interests of the people have been rebuffed by leaders once at the forefront of struggles for justice, and later demands for statehood as a precondition.

Uttarakhand falls into a different category because it is inhabited by hill people, many of them belonging to the upper castes. The region came into the limelight when in the 1970s local communities mobilised against transfer of forest resources to commercial companies. The Chipko movement in the Kumaon and the Garhwal regions became famous for novel modes of protest and awareness of environmental harm. People protested against appropriation of resources and actions that impinged upon their bare survival. The demand for statehood on the ground of special needs was articulated by leaders in national parties, and gained momentum in the late 1990s.

A new exploitative elite In all these three small States, struggles had mobilised for justice more and independent statehood less. Quickly, however, some leaders realised that identity politics is more likely to attract the attention of ruling groups than appeals to justice. With the formation of three small States the two paths — the fight against injustice and the drive to hoard power in the name of identity — have diverged. In the process, the claims of representative democracy have been replaced by aspirations to political power and distasteful compromises made in pursuit of profit.

Going beyond defections, attempts to topple governments and establish governments, it is time to ask, what is the relationship between federalism, States, representative democracy and justice? Justice follows only when the wants of people who have elected representatives are addressed, and when these representatives recognise that their own status is derivative. But representatives have cynically chosen to look the other way when matters of justice are involved. They seem to have only a will to power; to be part of a new exploitative elite. But they forget that the history of struggle is the future of struggle. Maoism is one extreme form of struggle against corrupt appropriative and greedy elites; there are others.

And there is reason to struggle. Chhattisgarh is a rich State but its people are poor. Jharkhand is one of the most politically unstable States, even as its leaders cosy up to power while their own people live lives stripped of dignity. In Uttarakhand the inhabitants of the hill districts eke out a bare living. They survive because of remittances from the rest of the country. The chasm between the needs of the people who struggle for survival, action and inaction by representatives, and lack of remedial justice has compromised representative democracy enormously. The issue is not only one of federalism; defections from one party to another indicate renunciation of the basic obligations of representatives, even as their own people starve.

Neera Chandoke is a former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University.

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