Thursday, June 30, 2016

Demand for new states in the North East

Of late, there has been a persistent demand for a separate Garo homeland that is being voiced with much intensity across the Garo dominated areas of Meghalaya. As the movement grows in pace, it is perhaps pertinent to look into the history of state reorganisation in India and place North East in that paradigm. The history of states reorganisation goes back to the freedom movement of India. The earliest comment on states organisation or reorganisation came from Mahatma Gandhi who opined that states should be divided on the basis of linguistic differences. This was based on his own experience of Congress witnessing a massive fillip when it starting releasing periodicals in their own languages. It was a belief on these experiences which saw Gandhi as one of the first supporters of linguistic separation. However immediately after independence, the Dhar commission was formed which negated the need for division along linguistic lines. This was followed by the JVP Jawaharlal Nehru,Vallabhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitarammya committee which too rejected division of states along linguistic lines.

A major shift in stand towards state organisation came in 1952 when Potti Sriramlu succumbed to a 56 day hunger strike demanding creation of a separate Telugu speaking state. Once Andhra Pradesh was created out of the Telugu speaking provinces of erstwhile Madras state, the floodlights opened towards new demands for creation of newer states.Finally, the States Reorganisation Act, 1956 signalled the creation of 14 states and 5 Union Territories (UTs). Yet this did not end the clamour of new states and the hopes and aspirations of people for separate statehood continued. In 2000, three new states of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh were formed;  in 2014 the newest state of India,Telengana was born.

The history of statehood formation in NorthEast has not been any different from the rest of the country. At the time of independence, North East was composed of the Province of Assam in existence since 1912, the princely states of Manipur and Tripura and the North Eastern Frontier Province (NEFA). In 1949, Manipur and Tripura became Union Territories eventually becoming states in due course of time. Nagaland was created in 1963 while Meghalaya came into being in 1969. The Mizo hills of Assam were converted into a Union Territory in 1972, which eventually became a full fledged state in 1987. NEFA, too, became a full fledged state in 1987.As the rest of the country, North East continues to shimmer with demands for a separate homeland ranging from ideas of a separate state to sovereignty. Bodoland, Kamatapur(Assam),Garoland in Meghalaya are fermentations of those ideas that continue to dominate the  troubled political landscape of  the North East.

Yet, it would not be sufficient to see the present demand for a separate homeland on the basis of history alone. The debate has to be seen on the twin paradigms of how the new states have fared since its inception and also the ethnographic landscape of the NorthEast.The three states that were created in 2000, were carved on the basis of backwardness rather than linguistic considerations. Yet the results have not been too encouraging. Despite having huge mineral and natural resources, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand have not been able to focus on development. Today, Chattisgarh has become a hotbed of Maoist activities. The government has taken many steps to improve the lives of the people. Educational hub in Dantewada, for example, seeks to redefine how Maoist areas in India are perceived, yet a large ground remains to be covered. While states like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan have marched ahead either on growth or human development index, the newly carved states continue to find the right path towards growth. At the same time historically smaller states like Kerela, Nagaland and Mizoram continue to post impressive numbers in terms of human development. These states have phenomenal literacy rates for example. But one glance will make it amply clear that most of these come from the traditional structures that these states have had. For example, among the tribes in North East, impressive literacy numbers can be attributed to the fact that missionaries have had a positive influence in these regions.

At the same time, however, it must be understood that debate centred on small states cannot be seen from the point of development alone. There are advantages towards a small state that cannot be denied. A smaller state brings administration closer to the people. The administration has a greater understanding of issues on ground. A smaller state ensures lesser diversity, not only in terms of ethnicity or language alone, but also economic systems. For example, a separate Bodoland would have different areas of focus compared to the government of Assam where the economics revolves around tea and oil. Thus, smaller states ensure better economic policies.

However, while looking at small states and the North East, one has to account for the ethnic diversity that North East has. Every tribe of NorthEast has a collective imagination of a homeland which is rooted in territorial identity. However this “collective imagination of a homeland” often clashes with the “collective imagination of a homeland” of another. For example the area, claimed by the Bodos as “homeland” is also claimed by the Koch Rajbonshis, for example. The Greater Nagalim dream of a homeland spans across a number of states and spills over to the neighbouring country of Myanmar as well. A new Kuki identity being spun across Manipur seeks to weave those across the international borders. Or at other times their “collective imagination of a homeland” stands opposing to the modern territorial boundaries. For instance, the Garos are spread across Meghalaya and Assam .If a new Garo state is introduced out of Meghalaya, then the dreams of the Garos of Assam stand unfulfilled.

One must also remember that declaring new state in NorthEast is difficult because the ethnographic compositions seek to indulge itself in a vociferous us versus them debate. If one looks back into the history of the NorthEast, the first statehood demand from Meghalaya came precisely because the Assam cabinet chose to impose itself on the rest of the hill people. The “us versus them” debate is real because the ties of ethnicity are not encompassed to territory alone but the rights within the territory and the economic resources. The Kokrajhar riots of 2012 were less of one community against another and more of the fight of two economic systems –one sedentary; the other which followed a non sedentary cultivation. At the root lies the fundamental issue of land rights, forest rights, the depletion of community grazing centres and a burgeoning population that stands unemployed. Thus ethnographic tensions stemming from territorial aspirations, have found a place in the socio-political landscape primarily because of the economic rationale.

Hence, any move towards creating a new state or a demand for a new state has to be seen on these parameters. A new state is not a question of administrative ease alone. Nor is it a question of fulfilling the idea of a collective homeland. It would need imaginative policies like formation of a Garo Cultural Council for addressing the Garo identity issue, which would encompass Garos from all regions without disturbing the present territorial compositions. In the long run, if a new state has to be formed,  it has to be judged from multiple angles. There is no verdict whether a new small state would completely succeed or fail but the greater goal of any democracy is giving wings to the aspirations of the people. And it is with this premise that we must keep looking at the constantly changing narrative of the NorthEast.

-          Ibu Sanjeeb Garg ( Views expressed by the author are personal.)

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