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India's 'Strong' Centre Is Weakening Its Security

19/02/2016 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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India's founders set out to build a strong Centre with independent state governments. But their experiment failed. Our state governments are not fully accountable - they depend on the Centre for survival and funds. People are routinely left with no local government, or one that is not focused on local issues. This hurts governance just where it touches people most. India's so-called strong Centre is too distant to provide any real representation or participation. What's most menacing, however, is that instead of adding strength, this is endangering our nation's security.

Consider the current danger in two crucial border states, J&K and Arunachal Pradesh. Both states have been without properly functioning governments for months now. In J&K the new PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti has been reconsidering forming her party's government with the BJP for more than a month. She put an already negotiated coalition on hold, when her father died in office after only nine months as CM. This is not the first time the state is without representative government. Withdrawal of support of one or another faction from coalition governments has brought J&K under central rule six times. In early 2015 it took the PDP and BJP 49 days after the election results to form a government. In the 1990s the state was under Governor's Rule for nearly seven years in a row, because the eruption of militancy made elections impossible. America's Foreign Affairs magazine has just reported that "today's Kashmir Valley looks worryingly similar to the Kashmir of the 1980s, just before the region erupted into a bloody insurgency that threatened the stability of the Indo-Pakistani border."

Security is threatened because politics, not poor governance, is behind the Centre's interference.

Similarly, the frontier state of Arunachal Pradesh was without an effective government for months. The Centre dissolved the duly elected government on the recommendation of one man, the Governor. While matters of his authority and the former CM's rights were being dragged through the courts, a new coalition was cobbled together. It is based on a razor-thin majority of ideologically opposed parties. How long this government will last is anybody's guess.

Regional newspapers are rife with people's dissatisfaction with the Centre's meddling. Commenting on how these political shenanigans threaten security, one paper noted how it was due to such tactics that "Kashmiris began hating Delhi durbar politics." "The mistake must not be repeated in Arunachal which China has long been trying to bring under its shadow," it added.

Security is threatened because politics, not poor governance, is behind the Centre's interference. The political ambitions of the ruling party at the Centre have been behind almost all impositions of President's Rule in India's history. This gives rise to violence. When deep rooted regionalism is denied expression or participation, people resort to unconstitutional means. This is the reason many separatist movements and insurgencies have festered in India's states. As Granville Austin, the chronicler of India's Constitution, noted in Working A Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience (p.562), "The central and state governments' unwillingness to heed pleas and to redress genuine grievances, and also to increase participation in governance through decentralization worsened many situations."

India's federalism has failed to end violent actions of regional groups. Secessionist movements that erupted in the early years of the republic... continue in one form or another.

India's federalism has failed to end violent actions of regional groups. Secessionist movements that erupted in the early years of the republic - Tamil, Sikh, Kashmiri and Naga - continue in one form or another to this day. A communist (Maoist) insurgency that originated in West Bengal in 1967 only became increasingly violent. It spread to Bihar, Jharkhand, and other areas. In 2010, Ashok Mehta, a retired major general of the Indian Army, reported that "more lives have been lost due to internal insecurity than in the five wars India has fought since independence in 1947." He noted that in 2010, Maoists had presence in 20 states and controlled large tracts of tribal forest land in eight. Punjab, West Bengal, Assam, and Kashmir continued to face bitter communal violence decades after Partition. Communal violence has erupted in UP and other places in recent times.

There were voices against India's 'strong' Centre approach even at the beginning of the republic. In 1957, C Rajagopalachari thought that the solution to "centrifugal interests" was to concede greater autonomy to the states. He believed that to centralize was "both ridiculous and alarming'.

India's system of government cannot continue to deny regional aspirations. People of each region merely desire to control their local governance and also have a real say in national matters. The only thing India's system needs to ensure is that no group or region infringes on the rights of others or of minorities.

A strong Centre cannot wish away India's plurality and diversity. Nearly all of the country's regionalism is based on lingual or communal grounds.

Indians hunger for this kind of federalism. In 1985, the Sikh Akali Dal resolved that it would "try that the Indian Constitution becomes federal in the real sense and all states are equally represented at the Centre." When in 2012 the central government announced the formation of another policing authority, National Counter Terrorism Center, without consulting state governments, there was an uproar. Subhash Kashyap, a well-known constitutional expert, called it a "sad hangover from the colonial period," caused by "constitutional illiteracy or a willful distortion of the Constitution." That year, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal declared in his state Assembly, "The country could not prosper unless it adopted a 'genuine' federal system."

A strong Centre cannot wish away India's plurality and diversity. Nearly all of the country's regionalism is based on lingual or communal grounds. Our system of government must address it. People's affinity with their language or religion-based groups is harmless. It gives them a practical way to live as a community, and a sense of identity to be proud of. As Gandhi once said, "As the basis of my pride as an Indian, I must have pride in myself as a Gujarati. Otherwise, we shall be left without any moorings."

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Pranab Mukherjee

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