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Imaginary discontents?

By Rajeev Dhavan (Opinion, The Hindu, Aug. 30, 1996)

Warnings that statehood for Uttarakhand will trigger a chain reaction resulting in India’s break-up are misconceived and mischievous. The case must be considered in its own right.

INDIA’S Constitution works on a theory of un-equal federalism. Some States are large, some small. Some – like Jammu and Kashmir and Sikkim – reflect the historical circumstances within which they were inducted into the Union. There is a family of Articles in the Constitution [Art. 371 to 371 (I)] which contain special provisions for certain areas in the States of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Goa. The panchayat amendments which create a unique three-tier federalism in India do not apply to Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, the hill areas of Manipur, the hill areas under the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and the Scheduled Tribal areas. Refusing to treat unequals equally, Indian federalism leans over to dispense favourable but unequal advantages to areas that need it. Conversely the representation of the States in the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha and for Presidential elections reflects demographic differentials. The larger States of U.P. and Bihar with 139 million and 86 million people respectively not only lift a huge share of funds and resources but also hold the balance of electoral power that makes or breaks Union Governments. Even the demographically seventh largest Tamil Nadu has 55 million people. The edge given to largeness remains a grouse among smaller States.

The Constitution does not treat unequals equally. We should not be embarrassed by our unequal federalism simply because it is different from other federal countries in the world. When a sub- continent dense with cultural variations brings people together, the Union is bound to consist of a mosaic of large and small units – with special areas getting special treatment. The Himalayan regions are special. So, indeed, are the tribal areas. If smaller States are required to protect these areas and bring social justice under conditions of sustainable development, the federal system must yield a sensible solution. Warnings that statehood for Uttarakhand will trigger a chain reaction resulting in India’s break-up are misconceived and mischievous. The case of Uttarakhand as a full fledged Himalayan State must be considered in its own right.

The argument of size is clearly wrong. The proposed State of Uttarakhand would cover 53.4 thousand, making it larger than Mizoram (21.9), Manipur (22.5), Meghalaya (22.5), Nagaland (16.5), slightly smaller than Himachal (55.7) and almost 60 per cent of Arunachal (83.5). Its population of 60.2 lakhs would make it the largest Hill State compared to the others (that is, Mizoram (6.9), Manipur (18.4), Meghalaya (17.7), Arunachal (16.5) and Himachal (51.7) and demographically the 18th largest State, just short of J&K’s 77.2 lakhs). A large over-populated State in the HImalayas is ecologically absurd and unsound in principle. Uttarakhand’s population is large enough to be viable but not so large as to offend the concept of a hill state.

For those familiar with the area, Uttarakhand has a cultural and historical identity which is integral to each of its nine districts of Almora, Chamoli, Dehradun, Garhwal, Hardwar, Nainital, Pithoragarh, Tehri Garhwal and Uttarkashi. The people of this area are as proud of this identity which they regard as beautiful as the surroundings that produced it. To the English, this was Jim Corbett country. For Indians it houses the strong and vibrant culture and aspirations of the people of Kumaon and Garhwal. The existence of this identity is not inimical to the existence of the Union or a threat to security. The demand for a separate Uttarakhand does not raise the banner of revolt. Nor has it ever been anyone’s case that the cultural identity of the area will pose future political barriers which will seek to cut itself off from the rest of the country. There is no reason for any political disputation over the creation of this new State.

The CPI had advocated the demand as far back as 1952. Mr. Kalyan Singh’s BJP Government of 1991-92 secured a unanimous resolution in support of Uttarakhand’s creation as did the Mulayam Singh Government which followed. The Mulayam Government’s high- handedness with the Uttarakhand agitation has created the false impression that the creation of this new State is politically contentious. In fact, this is not the case. The Congress conquered its discomfiture about the creation of Uttarakhand soon after demitting office. Some resistance over boundaries may come from residents of the Terai who do not wish their agricultural cultivation to be adversely affected. But, that is a matter of detail which can be easily resolved. Although comprising 18 per cent of U.P.’s area size, its less than 5 per cent of that State’s population would yield only four MPs and not affect the significance of U.P. holding the balance of national politics within its palm.

Instead of thinking of Uttarakhand as the commencement of a process of the disintegration of giant States like U.P., it is more realistic to think of it as the end of the process of creating Hill States stretching from Kashmir to Mizoram. Perhaps, following the creation of this new Hill State, West Bengal’s hill regions may seek stronger recognition than a Hill Council area. Self-governance by hill-folk with hill-folk perspectives covering the Himalayas is an end-in-itself even though experience suggests that unscrupulous hill State Governments have ruthlessly cut down forests and despoiled the environment to line politicians’ pockets with unearned wealth. It is not inconsistent with India’s uniquely unequal federalism that the Hill States are treated as a class by themselves, with special arrangements and resources being made available to them to preserve their identity and sustain development in an area that has no parallel anywhere in the world. We sometimes overlook the fact that the Himalayan region is important to the whole world.

The Union Government is right in taking the view that the earlier BJP and Samajwadi resolutions of the U.P. legislature were euphoric, carrying no other constitutional significance. It is the proposed Bill (not a mere back-dated resolution) that has to be placed before the U.P. legislature for approval. It is wise to wait for the new U.P. Assembly to approve the Bill. But the Bill will have to be followed by detailed legislation which will structure governance in Uttarakhand, and make special provisions to protect its peoples, their lifestyles and the environment.

Article 3 of India’s Constitution makes it possible for the boundaries of the States (though not of the Union) to be altered. The lack of territorial viability for the States has provoked the criticism that India is only a quasi-federal polity. In fact it is a creative provision. Nomenclature is irrelevant. After the creation of Andhra (1954), Gujarat (1960), Haryana (1966) and many hill and other States, India is richer in its creation of linguistic and other identites. In the past these transitions have been politically charged and painful. Earlier it was thought that to attach a premium on the preservation of identity and the celebration of difference was intrinsically bad because it was inclusionary and would breed insularity. It was the Andhra campaign of 1954 that changed these earlier biases. Nehru’s Government soon realised that linguistic identities brought people together without undermining national integration. By itself, the creation of Uttarakhand is not controversial, but it is in danger of walking into needless controversy. Imagined fears and discontents distort our understanding of the reason for the creation of Uttarakhand. The wider problems of Indian federalism do not have to be resolved as a prelude to creating this new Hill State.

No doubt, there are bigger problems ahead. India’s external boundaries were re-drawn by the British in 1947, by Pakistan’s usurpation of parts of Kashmir and by the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The changes in its internal map are not an affront to its federalism but its fulfilment. Some Indian States -especially U.P. and Bihar – contain populations larger than most of the larger nations of the world and need to be broken up into smaller units. The quest for smaller and manageable identities will not lead to the balkanisation of India but make democratic governance more meaningful. The creation of Uttarakhand will complete the decentralisation of the Hill States. The more difficult tasks lie ahead. The problems of Indian federalism need to be thought through; and, not fought out to the bitter end. For the moment the case for Uttarakhand should not be dragged into, or be undermined by, the wider controversies that confront us.