August 9, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

What is the anatomy of their autonomy?

Without saying it in so many words, the Maharashtra government recently gave a new contour to the concept of state autonomy in India. Angry at Delhi refusing to give it the demanded strength of paramilitary forces to counter a possible law and order problem over the impending arrest of Bal Thackeray in Mumbai, the state's home minister-cum-deputy chief minister, Chhagan Bhujbal, threatened to pull out the State Reserve Police guarding central government installations (like nuclear power plants and airports) and use it instead to control the riots that could emerge from putting Thackeray in jail.

In just one go, Bhujbal's bravura had painted the 'autonomy' board in the red hue of danger, complete with a skeleton skull sign atop. The man was showing what an individual state could do --- what it would in fact do if Farooq Abdullah's autonomy call went as far as its unthinking supporters seem to want.

Bhujbal's perverse outburst was also symptomatic of the ghetto mentality of several of India's state chief ministers elected by universal adult franchise for which, even 50 years after our Constitution was adopted, the brunt of our population doesn't seem quite worthy of.

Just see what Bhujbal was assaulting when he made his preposterous threat to the sovereign Government of India.

First and foremost, he was violating the sacred oath of office he was required to take when he became a state minister. The oath, enshrined in the Third Schedule of the Constitution of India, requires Bhujbal to, inter alia, 'uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India.' Was he not instead headed in doing just the opposite by his willingness to withdraw his SRP from their national duty of safeguarding the atomic energy establishments in Mumbai and Tarapur?

Such is the immaturity of our state politicians at large, such their intoxication with power, that someone like Bhujbal is probably unaware or has forgotten the solemnity of his oath of office taken just seven months ago. And he certainly does not know why and when the 'sovereignty and integrity' clause got inserted in that oath. Nor will he ever know because he is neither competent to read this English column nor inquisitive enough to have it translated in Marathi by his staff.

However, those who are interested in academics might like to know that that clause was introduced only as late as 1963 by the Constitution (Sixteenth Amendment Act) to give effect to the recommendations made by the Committee on National Integration and Regionalism in November 1962. It was done in order to impose Constitutional restrictions on those who want to convert secession from India or disintegration of India into political issues.

While the rustic Bhujbal may be forgiven for being innocent about our Constitutional history, it is inexplicable why our public interest litigation experts didn't make the man wise by pouncing on him for his dangerous anti-national outburst.

Bhujbal is, however, not the first to think the way he did. On April 10, 1969, there was a statewide strike in West Bengal as protest against firing by the guards of the Central Ordinance Factory. The State government failed to give protection against obstruction in the functioning of the central services within the State as a result of which these services had to be suspended for the day. In the Lok Sabha debates of April 11 and April 14, 1969, the Central government took a serious view of such an attitude on the part of some of the States.

More than a year earlier, in the Lok Sabha debate of February 13, 1968, it was held that giving adequate protection to Central property was a specific Constitutional obligation of the States under Articles 256 and 257.

Unfortunately, the issue remains unresolved even today. A PIL hauling Bhujbal to court should settle it once and for all. Alternatively, federalisation of the central administration would be an essential development and it would be in line with the practices in vogue in other federations. In any event, a stricter enforcement of the Industrial Security Forces Act, 1969, seems an inevitable outcome of Bhujbal's latest antic.

Bhujbal may be excused for having the intellect of a bellicose bumpkin, but what about P Chidambaram? The former minister of the Government of India held high profile posts of commerce first and finance later; he rubbed shoulders then with the high and mighty of the western world and today is a Supreme Court lawyer of some distinction. Yet, writing in India Today magazine (July 24), he advocates more autonomy to Indian states on the specious ground that Scotland and Wales, not being content to have separate football teams, are asserting their identities in the UK without anybody in London fearing 'balkanisation' or the loss of the British Parliament's sovereignty. In the same breath, Chidambaram acknowledges the urge of for reunion -- first in Germany and now in Korea.

So confused does this 'learned' counsel seem on the issue that he forgets the galloping centralisation in USA (cited in this column last week) and the changes sweeping Europe. Fifteen sovereign nations in that continent have now merged into the European Union that has a European Parliament, a currency of its own, and now -- according to The Times, London, of June 1, 2000 -- has drafted a Charter of 50 Rights that will be interpreted by the proposed European Court of Justice to underpin European life. There then is a powerful federal Europe in the making, slowly submerging 15 advanced national entities, and here in India we have the Abdullahs and the Chidambarams itching to break up a 50-year-old kaleidoscopic federation.

While the highly developed condition of EU's 15 constituents is known, what is the economic standing of these wannabe States of wazir-e-azams and nawabs? No better than dole seekers with begging bowls in hand.

According to an article in The Telegraph, Calcutta, of July 20, the Assam government's debt currently stands at Rs. 78.5 billion, of which 65 per cent is owed to the Centre. Assam's public transport and electricity system are in a mess -- as is much else that is under the state administration. The overall pace of development matches that of the snail's. One main reason for this is the total absence of work culture. Yet, Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta has the gumption and the shamelessness to shout for more autonomy. And what is the autonomy he is demanding? He hasn't even sketched out its anatomy.

Take Jammu and Kashmir. According to the BJP Today journal of July 16, 2000, the total expenditure of the state in 1997-98 and 1998-99 exceeded its own revenue by Rs. 41.70 billion and Rs. 45.39 billion respectively. Yet, Farooq Abdullah has the brazenness and the cheek to demand near azaadi from Delhi.

Abdullah's anatomy of autonomy is the restoration of the long-lost dignity of the mystical Kashmiriyat to the people of his State. Concealed in this make-belief is something that very few have had the application of mind to expose. Concealed is the fact that Kashmiriyat, ethereal as it is, is located only in the relatively small Kashmir valley in which half of the state's total population lives, while the remaining half that resides in the larger parts, Jammu and Ladakh, also have their own distinct ethnicity, culture and language (Dogri and Ladakhi) but have been groaning all these years under the valley-dominated administration of the state.

Punjab's rational for autonomy seems rooted in inadequate financial support from the Centre, but is vague about what autonomy should mean in flesh and bone.

The same is true of Tamil Nadu. Its chief minister recently declared that all of his ilk in the country are agreed on the need for autonomy. But what he did not say is what is its shape agreed upon.

It is all too obvious that all these CMs are merely prodding at the body and structure of autonomy without knowing what it is all about. Abdullah having led them to the body, they are all simply gazing at it -- like children at a new toy in the market showroom. They are in such a rush to get it that they cannot wait for the views of the expert group set up for the purpose by the national commission to review the working of the Constitution under Justice Venkatachaliah.

Meanwhile, all those media people who have been projecting the CMs on the national scene through their utterances on autonomy have a national duty to perform. They must demand a comprehensive progress report from each CM on what he has achieved in the field of panchayats -- India's version of self-governance at the grassroot level. That long overdue exercise is the litmus test of our States' commitment to autonomy and of their competence to use the concept for the benefit of our villagers. If one can't walk straight and quickly enough on tarred roads, why ask for special Nike shoes to run up the hill? It is as simple as that.

That field of panchayati raj is, remember, the one that is exclusively and entirely under the purview of the states. The states are reined in on that subject not by Delhi but only by Article 243 of the Constitution of India. Or do our CMs want that Constitution itself to be surgically severed from autonomy's anatomy?


A joint family gets transmuted into one or more nuclear families when, first and foremost, the independent unit is so economically self-sustaining as to help out the parental unit as well, if need be. In Abdullah's case, autonomy means the prodigal son who wants the azadi to live apart and also to live off his parents.

Arvind Lavakare

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