Behind most new state demands is shift of hegemony not banishing hegemony

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

A lot has been already said of the merits and demerits of creating more states in India. Generally these arguments would fall into two broad categories. One is inclined towards the emotional and usually based on the felt need for ethnic or linguistic self-determination, and the other adheres by the stated logic of facilitating administrative convenience. Neither obviously can be accepted or rejected outright, for there are merits as well as demerits in either. Moreover, there can be no one-size-fit-all formula on making any decision on the matter, as situations vary from region to region, and sometimes radically too. So if Telengana is a good or a bad idea, it does not necessarily mean Bodoland or Gorkhaland would be correspondingly a good or a bad idea. What is often confused and obscured is the fact that each of these issues, though similar in their manifestation, can be unique islands in themselves as far as the logic which drives each.

In a recent informal chat over a post seminar hi-tea, this topic surfaced momentarily and a remark by a colleague was particularly interesting, not just for its thought provoking idea but also because the alibi for he used was Northeast India. In championing the need for creating of more states in India, his remark was: “If Northeast can have seven states why not big states like Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra etc, be also organised into a number of smaller states”.

Apart of the disguised, though probably not consciously intended tone of condescension, there was much more loaded in the statement. Maybe I was being a little sensitive as a Northeasterner quite familiar with more naked versions of this tone that the Northeast is unduly pampered. But beyond the latent assault, the points to ponder must not be missed.

The Northeast has eight states, including Sikkim, and its combined population is about 48 million. Take away Assam’s 31 million and the rest of the seven states would have about 17 million between them. The combined Northeast population is smaller than the population of most of the larger single states even after more states had been bifurcated from them. Uttar Pradesh is still close to 200 million, Maharashtra 112 million, Bihar 103 million, Bengal 91 million etc.  Andhra Pradesh before the plan to bifurcate it, was close to 85 million and Telengana as and when it becomes a full-fledged state will be 35 million.

In terms of land area too, the Northeastern states would compare similarly. Leaving aside India’s megalopolises like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad etc, even mid-sized cities in many of these big states, would be several times the size of all Northeast states except Assam in terms of population.

The argument now is, these gigantic states should be broken down into more states so as to make administration easier, and with it to take care of the huge disparities in development between their various regions. The scale of this disparity is also nothing to trifle. Northeast India in many ways would be better off in this comparison. As all of us would have read in newspapers, while there are an increasing number of urban Indians making it to the list of richest in the world, in rural India there are several lakh farmers who routinely commit suicide because they see no hope for their future. In Northeast India, at least things are not so bad, though there can be no doubt that disparities do exist between regions. Things are unlikely to get as bad too, for there are numerous constitutional protections. The constitution needs praise at least on this count. It is also extremely malleable, as is evident in the fact that it has seen 98 amendments so far and more amendments are in the pipeline, and indeed the 119th amendment bill is being debated currently. In other words, provisions of the constitutions still can be modified if the introduced changes do not alter its fundamental features. As for instance, to take a hypothetical example, while a community can seek special land or heritage protection acts, no community or individual can seek India to change from a democracy to a dictatorship under the Indian constitution. Till 1979 when the Emergency ended, there was an ambiguity in this feature, and the Indian constitution nearly ended up fundamentally changed, and a dictatorship nearly instituted under it. The flaw was taken cognizance of in the hard way and painfully, but the ambiguity has since been erased, and thankfully too.

So is the bifurcation of states good. From the administrative point, the answer probably would be yes, especially in the case of the bigger states. In the smaller states, this can result in more ambiguity of redundancy. Let me explain myself. This redundancy, for instance, would have been noticed in the implementation of many Central government sponsored social welfare schemes even in Manipur. In formulating these schemes, certain broad parameters are used, such as a certain stipulated number of Anganwadi centres per square kilometre of area, the chief logic being, children should not have to walk too far for their pre-school tutoring.

What happens when a generalised broad scale becomes the standard everywhere would become evident from a scrutiny of the population distribution statistics available. Say for instance, if this particular Central government scheme were to stipulate there should be five Anganwadi centres in every square kilometre of populated area, there would be a chain of resultant flaws. To accentuate the anomaly let us take the most sparsely populated Tamenglong district which has a population density of 25 persons per square kilometre. This would imply setting up on the average five Anganwadi centres for 25 people. Of the 25 people, in all probability, at the most five would belong to pre-school age (that is after excluding the parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older children, infants etc). This would mean, five Anganwadi centres for five pre-school children in the square kilometre area. If two of these children are siblings and both enrol in the same Anganwadi centre, there would be one Anganwadi centre without any pre-school children. If all five enrol in one, there would be four Anganwadi without work. Everywhere in Manipur, especially in sparsely populated rural areas, this would have to be the reality. Indeed, I know it for certain, this is. This example can be broadly applied to many such schemes.

What is clear is, the primary focus of administration is, and should be, people. This is however not to say uninhabited areas do not merit administration. Especially in these days of environmental consciousness, we know even wasteland must be administered. It is also pertinent to note that neglect of what are often referred to as no-man land was what led to the disastrous and humiliating defeat India suffered in the 1962 war. What is then needed is a careful calibration of administrative mechanisms for different categories of land. This is one area where efforts have always seen a shortfall everywhere. This calibration of course has to take not just population in terms of numbers, but also the difference in culture of the populations who come under these administrative units. As for instance pure vegetarian fares served to children in Anganwadi centres may go well in certain areas, but not in others.

Let us also not forget, just as there are arguments for bifurcation of states on administrative considerations, there are arguments for clubbing together of smaller states for the same administrative ends. From a purely administrative point of view, let us recall how under the British Assam was clubbed under the Bengal Province Government till 1874 when it decided Bengal was becoming too big and bifurcated Assam as a separate chief commissioner’s province. Assam under the British meant the entire Northeast except the two princely states of Manipur and Tripura. How Assam itself was later bifurcated is now history. It will also be recalled that prior to Indian independence, there was a move to create a Purbanchal State in which Manipur was proposed to be included, again on administrative convenience plea, and that Hijam Irabot came into prominence in the protest against the move.

The problem of demarcating administrative regions is compounded in India because of the continued need, and therefore practice, of laws which are not uniform. In Manipur this should be obvious in the case of Jiribam. This small sub-division, though in terms of physical proximity should have been with Tamenglong or Churachandpur district, is attached as a satellite of Imphal East district. The question is why?

Many small-minded observers attribute the reason for this to territory lust of Imphal. This is far from the truth. The real reason, which I am sure all serious administrators in the state would know, is that while it is easy to accommodate tribal populations within a territory administered under general law and still guarantee the tribal population thus incorporated all the guarantees of reservation under the constitution, it would be a different ball game altogether to try and legally accommodate a population under the general category, in a reserved tribal area.

As for instance, if Jiribam were to be made a part of Tamenglong, I am sure non-tribal population thus incorporated would end up disenfranchised first of all, apart from being deprived of many other fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution such as ownership of land. Even if they are allowed restricted rights to vote, I am sure they would never be allowed to contest Indian elections – a deprivation if some of them were to challenge in the Indian courts of law, the constitution would have no answer but to relax reservation laws which would undoubtedly be another recipe for social unrest. We all know of how such a discrepancy exists in the case of seven valley assembly segments of Thoubal district which are clubbed into the Manipur Outer Parliamentary Constituency.

If the Meiteis were to turn Scheduled Tribes under the constitution, as a section of them are demanding, maybe this legal problem would thin down, but we all know where the strongest objections to this move is coming from.

I am all for administrative decentralisation and diversification, therefore would support demands for new states driven purely by a rational and scientific viewpoint of administrative convenience. Creating more states out of any particular state should have been as easy as dividing Delhi or Mumbai into several districts. Or to take an example closer home, it  ought to have been as neutral and desirable as dividing Imphal into Imphal East and West, and maybe South and North and more sometime in the future.

The trouble is, this is seldom the case. In most cases, those behind these demands are narrow vested interests, cloaking themselves under the veneer of aspiration and zeal for a better administration model for their region, in order to give their demands the facade of a measure of rationality and receptivity. However, the soul of most of these movements is not administration but the creation of sub-nations, therefore only a matter of shift of hegemony and not the banishing of hegemony.

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