Understandably, many post-colonial nations are uneasy, if not apprehensive of the idea of comprehensive federalism. Nonetheless, it is also a fact that given the diversity of their demography and geography, they were left with little choice than to embrace the federal model when they became free. Most of these nations, despite having adopted federalism, have however ensured that there are conditions to it. These conditions were in many ways aimed at not allowing the federal pledge amount to a suicide pact for the nation. India is no exception. Its own federalism is limited by structural safeguards to ensure its provinces do not get too powerful for the comfort for the Centre. In fact, constitutional experts such as Fali Nariman have openly argued that India is unitary in spirit but its claim of being federal in nature is facile. The strongest alibi he cites for his contention is Article 3 of the Indian constitution, which gives the Centre the power to not only alter the boundaries or change the name of any state, but also to create news states or dissolve existing ones without the consent of the concerned states. Such overwhelming power entrusted to the Centre, and consequently the hegemonic imposition of a sense of powerlessness to constituent states, he had argued in a paper presented at the 4th International Conference on Federalism held in New Delhi in 2004, is in no way an assurance of federal structure or spirit. His plea was, perhaps India had reasons to ensure that its federal units do not get too powerful at the time of its emergence from British colonial yoke, fresh as it was from the trauma of Partition and the uncertainty that other parts of its newly and hastily patched up provinces may too begin pulling away. Such compelling circumstances would probably have made any nascent nation think of an asymmetrically powerful Centre vis a vis its provinces, but those conditions are today gone. India is a confident and powerful nation now and there is no longer the need to continue to suffer from the same paranoia which it once was forced into. Article 3, hence calls for a radical rewriting, if not dropped from constitution altogether, he had argued. Many in Manipur of course would agree with Nariman on this point.
Today, India along with many other post-colonial nations have matured, having grappled with and weathered the birth pangs of their new modern identities in the half century that have gone by. Many others however have not been as resilient. Ethiopia for instance has had to undergo a partial dismemberment in recent times. Of the stories of nations which are succeeding in holding together despite their internal diversities, the case of South Africa is interesting. The internal rifts, tribalism, tribal notions of territory etc, have been a very potent mix of extremely destructive energy giving rise of centrifugal forces of such vehemence that it threatened to tear the nation apart on many occasion. Like so many other nations, it too could not have done without adopting a federal model, but it also had to evolve a formula to ensure that this federalism did not amount to its ultimate disintegration. Its slogan hence has been, “rights rather than territory”, a motto which seems to be working. The South African model of federalism should be of interest to many states in north east India where conflicting notions of territory and ethnic homelands have been the cause of so much violent turmoil.
Manipur also definitely could learn from this. It too is at this moment torn by centrifugal pulls in all direction, predetermined as in the South African case by contradicting notions of territory and homeland amongst it various ethnic communities. In the face of all this, it ought to have become clear to all parties concerned that there are no ways overlapping notions of territory and homeland can be segregated from each other to anybody’s benefit. The only way out seems be the substitution of obdurate adherence to territory as a conflict resolution mechanism, by guarantees of rights. Given its diverse ethnic reality, federalism and autonomy cannot be dispensed. But this autonomy cannot be at the expense of the larger common good, or made to endanger the very integrity of the state. Not heeding this warning can only amount to an apocalypse rather than the salvation we all have been hoping and praying for.