The re-emergence of violence in Kashmir shows once again the frailties of the Indian union. A well-known militant separatist is killed by security forces, but the state's local Muslim government, working with full blessings of a powerful Prime Minister, couldn't keep the protests from snowballing into a major crisis. More than 45 people have died, curfews have extended for weeks, the media has been muzzled, and yet thousands have come out on the streets. The unrest has disrupted India's Parliament, compelling the Home Minister to pay the state a special visit in the midst of a session. Worse, it has given Pakistan another opportunity to stick its nose in what should be India's internal matter.
A federation, by definition, requires politically independent state governments; the opposite of central control.
But Kashmir is only the most prominent of Indian insurrections. According to the Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management (founded by KPS Gill, the retired director-general of police who brought Punjab's Khalistan insurgency under control), India has 224 "terrorist, insurgent, and extremist groups," operating in more than a dozen states. A report in 2010, by a retired major general of the Indian Army, said that a leftist Maoist insurgency was present in 20 states across the nation. It noted that more lives had been lost in India's internal conflicts than in its five wars since Independence.
Violence in Indian states is not just limited to political rebellions. The country has seen major conflicts among states over everything under the sun. They have fought over water resources (Assam vs. Arunachal, Haryana vs. Punjab, Karnataka vs. Tamil Nadu); over ethnic homes (Gorkhaland in West Bengal, Bodoland in Assam, Maru Pradesh in Rajasthan); over regional inequality (Telangana, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh); over capital cities (Chandigarh, Hyderabad); and so on. These examples are on top of violent conflicts of years past over lingual and communal differences, including the one in Kashmir.
These are not symptoms of a strong union. Instead, these conflicts underscore the urgency of revising the fundamental principle on which the Indian union hopes to stand.
Indians have long thought that diversity needs control. That a pluralistic society is naturally centrifugal, and needs an outside force to keep it from dispersing altogether. Granted, these views were shaped by the trauma of Partition and by the multiplicity of states at the time of Independence. But they led to an unfeasible principle in India's Constitution, that of a "federation with a strong centre". A federation, by definition, requires politically independent state governments; the opposite of central control.
[State] conflicts underscore the urgency of revising the fundamental principle on which the Indian union hopes to stand.
The impracticality of India's principle was clear even during the framing of our Constitution. The most telling example was with respect to the office of governor. In its early days India's Constituent Assembly had adopted -- on Sardar Patel's recommendation -- that each state governor be elected directly by the people of that state. But this decision had to be reversed. For it became clear later in the Assembly's proceedings that a directly elected governor would make central control over state governments nearly impossible. This was the only reversal of a major decision in India's Constituent Assembly.
It is this principle of a "strong Centre" that is behind almost all of India's state conflicts, and is hurting India's unity. Many analysts have reached this conclusion. Granville Austin, famed chronicler of India's democracy, wrote, "Over-centralization unbalanced many of the Constitution's provisions for centre-state relations and set back the cause of unity." Similarly, Justice Sarkaria, whose famous Commission on Centre-State Relations studied the matter in the 1980s, had disdain for India's "personalized style of functioning." It "inhibited the growth of a federal culture which is the sine qua non of the health and proper working of a two-tier democratic polity," he wrote. My columns have also shown how central interference in border states put India's security at risk; and hurt local accountability of state governments.
Even Nehru thought giving proper autonomy to local governments was the way of the future. As late as 1946, he wrote in his Discovery of India:
"The way of approach to the problem of unity or Pakistan, is not in the abstract and on the emotional level, but practically... That approach leads us to certain obvious conclusions, that a binding cement in regard to certain important functions and matters is essential for the whole of India. Apart from them there may be and should be the fullest freedom to constituent units, and an intermediate sphere where there is both joint and separate functioning."
He was even willing to give constituent units a right of secession. He wrote of "supra-national regions, each functioning as one huge state but with local autonomy." "For the small national state is doomed," he said.
[There should be a] decentralized structure in which local governments have autonomy, yet the national government is supreme.
Is this type of thinking still appropriate for Kashmir? Consider what PM Manmohan Singh said in 2009 was the "breakthrough," on which "General Musharraf and I had nearly reached an agreement, a non-territorial solution." In the words of A.G. Noorani, a Kashmir expert:
"It was an ad hoc agreement whereby Indian troops would be withdrawn to the borders, and the LoC would become 'irrelevant'. De facto the State of Jammu and Kashmir would reunite. As well as self government in both parts of the State, there would be a joint mechanism at the top."
Self-rule for Kashmir with some kind of a top level agreement was "the best course," Noorani thought.
The truth is that forcing diverse people into a union, in the guise of "unity in diversity", doesn't work. What would work is to give them freedom of self-rule with an ironclad agreement -- Nehru's "binding cement" -- of a strong federal government. Provide a decentralized structure in which local governments have autonomy, yet the national government is supreme. States have no provision for cessation, and have to abide by the same national Constitution, and a uniform civil code. The states have the best of all worlds: a complete say in domestic matters, a fair say in national policies, and the benefits of size. They have everything to gain by continuing to be a part of a strong federation.