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At the margins of homogeneity

  • Published at 06:20 pm December 16th, 2013
At the margins of homogeneity

The Union of India is not a homogenous union. It never was. What I mean by this is that its constituent parts are not created equal nor does the law of the land treat them equally. There are a host of special provisions that apply to specific constituents only.

There is indeed a great deal of homogeneity of law – but that is in “mainstream India.” “Mainstream India” has typically been those parts of the Union where the Indian army is not actively deployed at present. Naturally, the contour of this “mainstream” has been changing.”

Places where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is in action, there are sweeping powers that the armed forces have over the life and liberty of people. The AFSPA has been applied at different times to most of what constitutes the Union of India’s north-east. No points for guessing in which other zone, apart from the north-east, does the AFSPA remain in force. But let’s not go there.

The non-homogeneity of the law typically remains buried from the mainstream (for definition of mainstream, see above) because most people from the mainstream simply do not have much reason to venture “out there.” The converse is not true.

In an over-centralised system, largesse in the form of opportunities, public facilities, institutions, universities, infrastructure, etc are inordinately showered around a zone around New Delhi called the National Capital Region (NCR).

Hence, those from “out there” have to trudge to the centre of the “mainstream,” whether they like it or not. It is very rare that this non-homogeneity comes into public scrutiny in the mainstream.

Auspicious days have a special value in our lives. So much so that the “bad guys” specially choose such occasions to mar the jubilation. They must be having a particularly twisted mind. December 1 this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Indian Union declaring the state (in the constituent province sense) of Nagaland.

As late as 1936, the British authorities were not entirely sure where to put most of the “north-east” - in the Empire of India or in the soon-to-be-created crown colony of Burma. Indeed, after 1937, some Naga areas “fell” in Burma.

Funny, isn’t it, that the land, that inalienable heritage of ancestors on which a people live and their identity thrives are not the most important truths – but lines drawn without consent and “falling” on people are.

Nagas have witnessed the longest struggle (someone’s terrorism, someone’s insurgency, someone’s freedom struggle – we all know the routine disclaimer) against both the post-British Burmese and Indian states. Whether they are post-colonial states (and this doubtful list includes Pakistan too) depends on whom you ask.

More than 50 years ago, the then prime minister of the Union of India, Jawaharlal Nehru said in the Lok Sabha: “We have had for many years Nagas in the Indian army and they have proved to be excellent soldiers. Our policy has always been to give the fullest autonomy and opportunity to self-development to the Naga people, without interfering in any way in their internal affairs or way of life.”

The last sentence is critical, as it goes against the usual thrust of policies from New Delhi – typically aimed at creating a homogenised, Hindustan (Hindi-heartland) centric identity. However, the context is important. When the Brahmin from Allahabad was speaking those words, he knew the stakes.

A few years before that, certain Naga groups had conducted a plebiscite. The Union of India did not consider any such plebiscite legal and of course there was no question of respecting the verdict of something it considered illegal in the first place. Legality is something. Reality is typically something else. The army was brought in.

These pronouncements by Nehru came shortly after his discussions with a group called the Naga People’s Convention (NPC). They negotiated the subsequent statehood status for Nagaland. Given the prevailing conditions, special provisions for the state of Nagaland were incorporated as Article 371A of the constitution of the Union of India.

Now after 50 glorious years of Nagaland’s life as a state of the Union of India, the ruling party of Nagaland called the Naga People’s Front has decided to take Article 371A of the constitution and certain pronouncements by the Petroleum Ministry in the parliament of the Indian Union at face value.

The Nagaland state government wants to use all its natural resources on their own and has cited the constitution to say it is constitutional. This is the kind of problem you get into when you have non-pliant provincial governments. New Delhi is not amused at the constitution being thrown at them.

This is a crisis, not so much of law breaking, but of law-following. We probably know how this ends. There will be “high-level” “meetings” and “consultations.” The otherwise passive position of the governor of a state (a New Delhi agent) will become active. The state government will probably back down. The courts will go the “right” way if it comes to that. It will again be “all quiet” on the north-eastern front.