Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Statehood for Gorkhas, not a simple question

By Nilotpal Basu

The issue of statehood and formation of new states is back. First there was this question of Telengana.And now there is disquiet and violence in the hills of Darjeeling. And unlike the Gorkhaland agitation of the 80's, there is a conscious effort to extend the atmosphere to the plains of the Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts of North Bengal. This has an adverse implication on the relations between different linguist and ethnic communities.

The question of statehood is a complex issue in the Indian context. There are several factors for this complexity. The Indian civilization for historical reasons have been diverse – diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, culture, lifestyle, agro-climatic and geographic realities, levels of economic development and so on and so forth. The process of integration also got deeply influenced by the British colonial rule.

In course of the freedom struggle, the diverse people of India were sought to be united against the British colonial domination. However, it was correctly understood by the leadership of the national movement that if the Indian people had to be mobilized for a modern nation building exercise – this rich diversity had to be recognized. Therefore, the question of identity had to be addressed with a composite multi-dimensional approach.

It was, therefore, not a mere coincidence that the constitution-making process undertaken by the constituent assembly in the post-independence period recognized the basis for addressing this question comprehensively. A two-tier structure of governance, both in the executive and legislative spheres, was contemplated. This structure with the national legislature and the provincial legislature was aimed to establish the concept of democracy, secularism, social justice and federalism –as the four basic pillars of the political system.

Once these basic questions were clinched, the new nation- state embarked on reorganising the states with the State Reorganisation Commission formed in 1953. The Commission came out with its recommendations in 1956 which largely accepted the principle of linguistic states which had been a general principal accepted widely within the freedom movement. Of course, the Hindi-speaking region was disproportionately big to allow a viable single state unit. The Reorganisation Commission, therefore, while attaching primacy to the linguistic-ethnic consideration also took the question of administrative and economic viability and geographic reality also into consideration.

It is also significant that the Constituent Assembly and subsequently the State Reorganisation Commission rejected the conceptual framework proposed by the RSS to create more than 100 states purely on the administrative consideration and implicitly undermining the composite and plural nature of the Indian society.

That multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious state was also a distinct possibility- has been accepted by the Indian polity. The finest example of this is the state of Jammu &Kashmir. In fact, with three distinct regions-Jammu, Ladakh and the Kashmir valley, celebration of 'unity in diversity'-the signature tune of the Indian nationhood is nowhere as suggestive as we see it here. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that those who question the status of J&K as an integral part of India also suggest its trifurcation.

However, two major developments – or for that matter processes have affected popular psyche leading to demand for division of states and creation of new ones after the first round of reorganization of states. The process of capitalist development inherently gives rise to imbalances in terms of regional development. India has been no exception. Questions of identity – ethnic and linguistic – and geographic reality have contributed to feeling of alienation and articulation of the demand for new states.

But given the size of the population, the fragmentation of the states further does not appear to be viable from the economic and administrative point of view. In North Bengal, for example we find 31 distinct ethnic groups with varying size of population using 141languages and dialects.

Additionally, there is a political danger. Increasingly, contemporary imperial powers have been seeking to use identity to destabilize and disintegrate nations. Kosovo is the most obvious reference that comes up in mind. In its counteroffensive against progressive governments, eastern lowlands and the Santa Cruz department have voted on an unconstitutional referendum to secede from Bolivia. Through the Columbian regime, the US administration is trying to abet separatist forces in the oil rich Zulia province of Venezuela to break away from the Chavez country. Here at home, developments in North East in the past also bear testimony to this.

Indeed there is a strong case for revisiting structures of governance and autonomy to bridge the sense of alienation. To address the aspirations for greater participation and determining the future of their own community– the yardstick of linguistic and ethnic identity alone or imbalances of regional unevenness alone cannot be a basis for creation of new states. A combination in the content and form of democracy, access to development and with adequate constitutional safeguards- protection and flourishing of linguistic cultural characteristics can only ensure a rich plural tapestry which the Indian people and the society have come to enshrine in our Constitution.

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