Analysis

The reformatting of India

By Kanak Mani Dixit

13 March 2017

The India that emerged from the Constitution of 1950 does not do justice to the shared history of the Subcontinent, or the genius of its own citizens
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju

Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju

(This is an essay from our December 2013 print quarterly, ‘Are we sure about India?’. See more from the issue here.)

It has been six and a half decades since India the nation-state was established as a truncated version of historical ‘India’. The single Subcontinental colony was divided into three nation-states, later to become four. Because the largest emerging nation took the name ‘India’, the term ‘Southasia’ gained currency to describe the broader Subcontinent and Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the world tends to regard India as the inheritor of the region’s Indic legacy. India constitutes a large part of Southasia physically, is geographically central, contains the bulk of the Subcontinent’s population, and is the economic powerhouse of this part of Asia. For the sake of the people of India as well as of Southasia, whose future is defined to such a large extent by India, it is important to ask: are we sure about India as it is constructed? Is it time to consider reformatting?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was vehemently opposed to the Partition of the Subcontinent, while contemporary nation-builders in India and Pakistan did not think that the new borders would act as hard barriers to movement between the newly forged countries. Despite the trauma, violence and horror of that cleaving, in the early post-Partition years it remained relatively easy for Indians and Pakistanis to visit family and friends on the other side. As late as 1956, steamers continued to chug up from Calcutta to Assam through the water channels of East Pakistan. However, the continuing trauma of Partition resulted in harder and narrower definitions of the nation-state in subsequent years, leading to the calcification of borders and the rejection of the broader and more fluid identities that the Subcontinent offered.

The communal violence which accompanied the process of bifurcation contributed to the desire for a strong centralised state, and created suspicion among the New Delhi establishment that in-country ‘regionalism’ could turn separatist. The separation of India and Pakistan coagulated to form rigid frontiers defined by concertina wire, the New Delhi and Islamabad establishments developed capital-based nationalisms, and also implemented their respective constitutions in a manner that centralised power. Karachi, Lahore and Dhaka lost out to Rawalpindi-Islamabad; Calcutta, Bombay and Madras to New Delhi.

If the experience of Partition made the country New Delhi-centric to the detriment of the regions, 65 years later it is time to consider a redesign to the superstructure

During the drafting of the Indian Constitution in the late 1940s, both Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar, the chair of the Constitution Drafting Committee, tilted towards centralism and away from federalism. Wrote Ambedkar, “Though the country and the people may be divided into different states for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source [i.e. the Constitution].” This centralism, according to one scholar, resulted from the “historical experiences of disruptive and disintegrative sectarian forces and the political context of partition prevailing at the time of independence”.

Thus, even though the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 and the Constituent Assembly in its early meetings had favoured a central government whose powers were confined to foreign affairs, defence and communications, in the aftermath of Partition the Constituent Assembly adopted a more unitary vision. Nehru conceded that while “free India may be a federation … in any event there must be a great deal of unitary control.” The scholar K V Rao saw the Centre as usurping the rights of the states, while the constitutional scholar Ivor Jennings saw India as a “federation with strong centralising tendencies”.

The defining theme of the Subcontinent’s countries from 1947 to the present has been a preoccupation with individual nationalisms. Pakistan is defined as federal, while India’s constitution does not use the term but it is presumed by many to be so. In reality, both countries evolved centripetally, and developed a national security state – overtly in Pakistan, and more subtly in the case of India. The two sibling states went to war in 1948 and 1965, which only strengthened the Islamabad and New Delhi establishments to the detriment of internal devolution and decentralisation. India also suffered from the ignominy and fallout of the 1962 war with China, which further increased the country’s insularity, fears of secession, and impulse towards greater centralisation.

A state of states
It is not just that India is the second largest country in the world by population, and home to almost a fifth of the worlds’ population of 7 billion. Unlike the People’s Republic of China, where there is relative homogeneity among the Han population vis-à-vis the small minority ‘nationalities’, the very idea of India is defined by diversity. This plurality is distributed across tens of thousands of identities and sub-identities.

The centralised nation-state of India does not do justice to the size and diversity of its population, and strait-jacketing this staggering multitude into the unitary-state format has created contradictions. The States Reorganisation Commission, which was tasked with dividing the country into states after the Constitution was promulgated, went as far as to state baldly that “it is the Union of India that is the basis of our nationality”, which sounded like an attempt to force an exclusivist unitary identity upon a varied people of multi-layered identities. In essence, the state establishment would define what it meant to be ‘Indian’.

The debate rages on about whether India was delivered as a federal country or a unitary state, and given the ambivalence in the constitutional text, detractors and supporters alike are forced to resort to qualifying adjectives to speak of ‘mythical federalism’, ‘quasi federalism’ and ‘cooperative federalism’. The fact is, the Constitution of 1950 was written by an unrepresentative Constituent Assembly appointed without universal adult franchise, and during great transitional nervousness. The drafters opted for a centralised democracy which Nehru nurtured from the helm for the next 16 years until his death in 1964. While Nehru’s guiding hand helped India achieve political stability in its initial years, it was natural for the Union to fray at the edges before long.

Since then, there has been a drift towards ‘regionalism’ in India, but it has been unplanned, and unguided by academics or opinion-makers who should have been taking the lead. The rise in the relative power of the states was made possible by the Congress party’s weakening hold on power starting in the late 1960s, allowing state players a role in forming coalition governments at the Centre. In particular, the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have helped regionalism gain traction. However, the devolution is quite inadequate, and at the very least it is time for an India-wide debate on state-restructuring.

The structure of the Indian nation-state was intensely discussed vis-à-vis state-formation during the writing of the Constitution, and subsequently during the 1960s in relation to the Hindi north and non-Hindi south. Since then, there has been a strange reluctance among the intelligentsia to take that discussion to any depth. In March 2012, Prakash Singh Badal, Chief Minister of Punjab, demanded a new constituent assembly to shift the balance of power in favour of the states. It may not be necessary to go that far, but scholars and policy-makers must certainly come forward to grapple with the idea of devolution. If the experience of Partition made the country New Delhi-centric to the detriment of the regions, 65 years later it is time to consider a redesign to the superstructure.

Beyond the matter of whether a unitary Union can do justice to India’s demographic effervescence – it cannot – the question is whether individual citizens can find optimal fulfilment within that format. Certainly, each of India’s constituent entities and sub-entities has its own preoccupations and politics, but the deepest aspirations of all players and actors tend to be national. It is a fact that, other than the self-confident exceptions who find fulfilment in villages, districts and the regional hubs, everyone else wishes to ‘make it’ in New Delhi – or Gurgaon and Noida – even though not everyone can be accommodated there. The genius of individual citizenship is stifled when ultimate success in any sphere – from politics to bureaucracy, from activism to commerce to academia – is measured only in terms of ‘success’ in the capital, howsoever desultory it may be. This is unfair and unhealthy, because the scale of the Indian Union and the size of its population cannot possibly afford so restrictive a definition.

Dilli door hai
India the nation-state became the default inheritor of the history of the Subcontinent by the simple act of unilaterally christening itself ‘India’. But the structures of the Indian nation-state alone cannot represent the history and expanse of Indic civilisation, nor can the size and diversity of the population of present-day India find articulation only through the eyes and mouth of New Delhi.

Indian centripetal nationalism has been force-fitted on to the entire population, to the detriment of other self-ascribed primary identities. Amidst the plural identities, the national Indian identity has become the most functional, also held up in contradistinction to other nationalities, viz. the Pakistani, Chinese or American. India is not a settlers’ Mecca of migrant communities, where the ‘melting pot’ dogma may justify the move towards monochromatic society. Within India, the mental distance from the clan to the community, the tehsil, the district, the state and the nation-state is wider than in most countries, both because of the society’s diversity and the size of the population.

Given the strength of the intermediate identities, it bears asking whether the exclusive ‘Indian’ identity can grip the citizen in a way that is energising and productive. What is lost in this process? Do the citizens of India enjoy the cultural comforts of nationalism as citizens do in countries with shorter distances and fewer layers between the clan and the nation-state? It does seem that the sheer scale of India forces its citizens into an automated sense of belonging, strong enough to cheer for the national cricket team but not to energise the populace the way a ‘nation-state’, by its European evolution and definition, is meant to. To paraphrase the 13th-century Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin in an entirely different context, today the undercurrent everywhere, whether articulated or not, is the refrain, ‘Abhi dilli door hai’. The fount of most powers should be brought to the state capital, where it would be closer to the citizen.

The quality of democracy
Strangely, federalism is being discussed most energetically in the smaller countries of Southasia even though it is India and Pakistan that need it most. In Sri Lanka, the debate over the Sinhala-Tamil divide centres on the devolution of powers to the north and east. In Nepal, amidst an extended political transition since 2006, the Interim Constitution has already declared the country ‘federal’, while the debate on the exact definition to be applied rages on. In India, despite the slow and inevitable slide towards ‘regionalism’, the intelligentsia has preferred to monitor its evolution rather than lead the debate. The last time that there was any kind of national debate on federalism was during the work of the Sarkaria Commission, whose January 1988 report more or less recommended the continuation of existing Centre-state relations.

The managers of the Indian polity seem to feel that they are riding a tiger, understanding perhaps the need to empower the citizenry through devolution but fearful of the forces that may be unleashed in the process. They are afraid of opening a Pandora’s box which may lead to communal tensions, the rise of local feudocracies, human rights abuses, and the denigration of local governance. Another concern is the possible abandonment of ‘equalisation’, the policy under which poor states are subsidised by the others. The sharing of river waters would be one of the biggest challenges, threatening flare-ups between upper and lower riparian Indian states in the absence of a powerful central arbiter.

These are certainly challenges on the road to federalism, but the answer does not lie in the head-in-the-mud attitude prevalent in think tanks and academic circles, which shudder at the thought of being accused of heresy. Progressive federalism is the only direction India can take to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. To forego debate just because devolution is difficult to design and implement is to accept the chaotic drift that is sure to prove dangerous.

India is indeed a democracy – ‘the world’s largest’ by population – but the quality of the democracy is a different matter. The power of state satraps, the all-pervading impunity, the weakness of civil society and the media – much of this relates back to the centralisation of the polity, which has prevented the values of pluralism and open society from seeping to the capillaries. Indeed, the applause for national democracy tends to drown out the screams from the villages and mohallahs. A loosely knit federation of units – the states – would have been better at providing representation and ownership to the citizenry. Had the states been made accountable and answerable, over the decades there would have been much more effective and democratic governance all over.

New Delhi has used nationalism to control communities and regions, and the intelligentsia does not dare challenge this holy cow. Thus the Northeast has suffered under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for decades without strong objection by civil society, whether in Delhi, Kolkata or Guwahati. The Manipur civil rights activist Irom Sharmila has been continuously fasting for 12 years to demand that the Act be repealed (she is force-fed through a tube), but her monumental Gandhian effort is glossed over, pointing again to a deficit of democracy everywhere in the centralised state. This is why an Anna Hazare on the pandal is able to attract blanket television coverage, but not so Irom Sharmila on her hospital bed.

The weakness of the national-level intelligentsia’s convictions and its inability to take on the holy nationalist cows becomes ever more evident. After the 1998 Pokhran-II tests it jettisoned its activism against nuclear weaponisation almost overnight in favour of vociferous pro-nuclear flag-waving. By and large, the Indian media continues to speak the language of New Delhi when it comes to international relations and national security, whether in the case of Kashmir, the Northeast, the Naxalite insurgency, or various minority issues.

Said the social philosopher Rajni Kothari, “The battle for federalism in India is fundamentally a battle for greater democracy in which the people come into their own through social identities, organisational forms and institutional frameworks with which they feel comfortable and through which they can find their potency and self-respect.”

The Southasian colony
India, Indian citizenship and Indian identity have developed with national insularity, whereas the term and concept of ‘India’ represents an entire ‘civilisation’. India the nation-state has spent six decades trying to shape itself in the image of the dominant mainstream countries of the Global North. This not only alienates the Northeasterner, the adivasi, the Dalit, the Muslim, the southerner, and other populations groups, it also neglects – to its own disadvantage – the Baloch, Sindhi, Pakhtun and the ‘Bangal’ of the east who participated in the historical evolution of ‘India’. By cornering the name for itself, India has wrested from these peoples the ability to lay full claim to the history of the Subcontinent. The attempt to carve an Indian identity totally independent of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka is incomplete because it ignores large swathes of shared history.

Of course there are those who stand outside the historical ‘Indian mainstream’ – in particular the communities of the Himalayan rimland, from Baltistan through Ladakh to Arunachal and parts of the Northeast. Still it is true that the Subcontinent extended from its core to encompass Sri Lanka on the one hand and Tibet on the other, while including Afghanistan and Burma in different stages and degrees. It is not possible for India the nation-state to represent all of this history and sensibility alone.

Today, the India represented by New Delhi seeks a seat on the Security Council. Had the country seen itself as inheritor of the historical India, it might have considered how it could represent all of Southasia. As the Asian economies expand to challenge the both sides of the North Atlantic, the default juxtaposition is between China and India, where the more proper one would be between Southasia and the Middle Kingdom.

Prior to colonisation, centralised administrations under the Mughal and Maurya empires mainly demanded fealty and tax payments, providing security to the populace while leaving local communities to themselves. The British colonial administration has its origins in the mercantilist ambitions and raison d’etre of the East India Company. Had it not been for colonisation and the development of centralised administration under the Viceroy (and thereafter the Governor General), in the 20th century the Subcontinent would probably have evolved as two-score or more nation-states. Such entities would have taken different trajectories, and would have grappled with pluralism and development as do nation-states elsewhere in Asia and the world. The Southasia of today is the British India of yesteryear, barring exceptions such as Nepal. Modern India needs to federalise not by reviving the ancient kingdoms, nawabates and zamindaris, but by fulfilling the requirements of devolution within the framework of the existing (and future) states.

The federalisation of India would also finally mean the success of the project of Southasian regionalism. It is the asymmetry of Southasia, with India as the largest and most powerful country at the centre, that has made SAARC regionalism so weak. A devolved, federal India would empower the states to reach out across international boundaries, creating soft frontiers more true to the historicity of the Subcontinent. This has begun to happen, at long last, in the Punjab-Punjab sphere, with the Amritsar and Lahore state and provincial governments wooing each other. India’s Northeastern states would like to similarly link up with Bangladesh; the triangle of Kerala, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu needs to be activated; as does the triangle of Nepal, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. All of this would make Southasian regionalism stronger and support the societies and economies on both sides, improving on the current model where only the national capitals talk to each other.

In the context of Southasia, some may consider it laughable that Nepal, presently seen as a basket case, can serve as any kind of model. The country may be unstable today, but in the small window of untrammelled parliamentary democracy in the first half of the 1990s, it showed how much good – local government, community forestry, participatory development, the FM-radio revolution – can come from the devolution of certain powers to territories of manageable dimensions. India could study Nepal’s experience – separating the good from the bad – to see how a similar devolution can enhance local ownership of the state and nation-state. Nepal, at least, has the privilege of making its own mistakes and learning from them; the many similarly-sized Indian states do not.

The provincial entities
India has seen the doubling of its constituent states to 28 since its founding, and it is a good thing that the country now has Chattisgarh, Uttatrakhand, Jharkhand, and the ‘seven sisters’ of the Northeast. And waiting in the wings are Gorkhaland, Bodoland, Vidharbha, Purvanchal, Mithila Pradesh and Telengana. The bifurcation and trifurcation of large states is a sound idea given the simple need to bring governance closer to the people.

It is hard to countenance Uttar Pradesh as a single state unit; its nearly 200 million people would make it the fifth most populous country in the world if independent. There is no doubt that, for starters, Uttar Pradesh must be divided into Avadh, Harit Pradesh, Purvanchal (with parts of Bihar) and Bundelkhand (with parts of Madhya Pradesh). But instead of planning for this necessity and eventuality, the political class, bureaucracy and academia remain passive spectators who refuse to engage in the debate on what is to be done and how power is to be devolved. As with Uttar Pradesh, so with the rest.

Vital as it is to increase the number of states, it is more important to devolve real power to state entities. In simple terms, the state rather than the Centre must be made the credible arena for the aspirations of the citizens. A comforting and satisfactory sub-national sovereignty must be constructed. Some of this will happen through the handover of the Centre’s fiscal powers, which is already underway and includes the loosening of the Planning Commission’s grip on allocations and disbursement. Beyond this, the states must be allowed to function without veto power from the Centre. This is the only way to finally make the states’ bureaucracies, civil societies and academics look inward rather than Delhi-ward, and to build accountability, values and systems to serve the state population. To do nothing out of fear of the unknown will simply add to the sub-surface malaise.

The most visible and dynamic centralised governmental entity in India today is the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), part of what is known as the All India Services. Despite an arrangement whereby IAS officials are assigned as ‘cadre’ to individual states, the organisation is entirely controlled by the Centre. When the career ambitions of an IAS officer can be made to end at the state capital of Lucknow, Raipur or Hyderabad, we can perhaps say that India has started on the road to federalism.

More and smaller states with fully devolved powers will ultimately push back the continuous menace of impunity as the state and its sub-units are challenged and made more responsible. Smaller states will be answerable in ways that the mammoth centralised regime of New Delhi can never be. The absence of a planned step-by-step devolution not only denies states the resources and powers they need to fulfil their people’s aspirations, it also provides a ready excuse for dysfunctional state governments. Currently the scale of the Indian’s administrative reporting structures impedes responsiveness.

The demand for devolution must not be viewed as a challenge to the nation-state. India must define itself according to its own realities, and its population size and demographic diversity require nothing less than a further division of states, accompanied by their empowerment. The ‘States List’ must be given priority over the ‘Concurrent List’ and ‘Union List’ in the Constitution. Article 370 of the Constitution, which defines the relationship between Jammu & Kashmir and the Indian Union, might serve as a model even though Kashmir’s history and its present are not comparable to that of any other state. In its original form, Article 370 ensured that the administration in Srinagar (and Jammu) would retain all powers except those related to foreign affairs, defence and communications.

Mute debate
The countrywide disquiet on matters ranging from high levels of corruption to violence against women, along with the befuddlement of the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh, probably has unarticulated roots in structural problems with the nation-state’s design. The nationalist ideology that developed after 1947 helped create a brittle ‘nation-statism’, which made territorialism sacrosanct. National security was raised to the level of national ideology, hampering the development of grassroots and regional democracy in India.

Narrow interpretations of nationalism are likely to question the right of a non-Indian to have the ‘dhristata’ to recommend a reformatting of India. But a confident polity should be able to countenance suggestions from within or without. A stronger, democratic and more inclusive
India would benefit all within Southasia, including those within India. India has a great future, but not as a humongous, unwieldy and centralised state.

~Kanak Mani Dixit is founding editor of Himal Southasian.

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