Gorkhaland – Reviewing The Statehood Quagmire By Amar Patil from School of Law, University of Mumbai
Statehood and the demand for statehood has always been a bone of contention in Indian Polity since its independence from the British Raj in 1947. With the recent upheaval in North East India in the states of West Bengal and Tripura regarding the statehood for Gorkhaland and Tiprland respectively, the debate surrounding the demarcation of new states or the concept of statehood has once again come in the spotlight. While Iron Man Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Statesman par excellence V P Menon[i] weaved together the fragmented princely states which numbered around 562 into one Political dispensation what came to be known as the Integration of Indian States[ii], the demand for statehood or a federal state unit immediately sprang up. Given the length and breadth of India it is impossible to govern it as a single unit. The only way to govern India is through decentralization of powers, political as well as economic. Thus, the concept of centripetal federation found resonance in India whereby one single State is divided into different federal states (or units) for convenience of administration. Article 1 of the Constitution of India proclaims that India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States. Though, the catch lies somewhere else. Given the backdrop of Partition and the large scale blood bath that followed it, politicians as well as rulers in India were wary of forming states immediately as they did not want another partition. Also, fulfilling the demand of statehood of one group or community may result in surge in demand of other groups. It is often said that India is a Federal State with a Unitary Bias.
The division of India into various states was a result of labour of three commissions. Linguistic Provinces Commission or Dhar Commission[iii] followed by JVP Committee (Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya) and State Reorganisation Commission[iv] popularly known as Fazal Ali Commission[v]. The efforts of the Fazal Ali commission culminated in the States Reorganization Act, 1956 which established 14 states and 7 Union Territories. Even though the Dhar Commission suggested against forming states on linguistic basis citing Geographical contiguity, financial self-reliance, administrative viability and potential for development as criteria, the statehood was granted on linguistic basis as the common identity among the people inhabiting the states. However, it is pertinent to note that India does not have double citizenship like other federations. Thus, even though people may be domiciled in different states the overarching identity is Indian Citizen.
The recent violence and agitation for the statehood of Gorkhaland that rocked West Bengal is attributed to the imposition of Bengali language making it compulsory as a part of education and curriculum on the tiny Hill community. Even though the agitation may seem reactionary it is not so. The demand for a separate and autonomous Gorkhaland dates back to 1907 when the Hillmen’s Association of Darjeeling submitted a memorandum to Minto-Morley Reforms demanding administrative autonomy. In the 1980s Subhash Ghishing led Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) spearheaded the campaign for Gorkhaland culminating in the formation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council which gave a certain amount of administrative autonomy to the people. Later, Bimal Gurung led breakaway faction Gorkha Janmukti Morcha became the torchbearers of Gorkhaland Movement and Gorkhaland Territorial Administration[vi] which is a semi-autonomous body and was formed in 2012. In 2013, the formation of Telangana revived the Gorkhaland demand and currently the Gorkhaland movement is at its peak with political parties across the spectrum coming together to form Gorkhaland Movement Coordination Committee as an apex body to negotiate with various stakeholders. The agitation and indefinite strike has entered its 50th day showing no signs of withdrawal and people are relentlessly demanding a separate state. It is one of the longest spells of strike in the history of the nation. On the other hand, the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura is championing the cause of tribals citing the dwindling population and the influx of migrant from other states and Bangladesh for a separate state.
While the cause of Nepali language and distinct topography is spearheading Gorkhaland movement, protectionism and security of indigenous people is boosting the statehood of Tipraland. With 14 states in 1956 to 29 states and 7 Union Territories in 2017 and a dozen aspirant separate state movements in the bosom of Bharat Mata the question of statehood needs to be reviewed. Is linguistic criterion the right yardstick for statehood or should it be economic viability or administrative efficiency or demography?
Is India a federal polity with a unitary bias or a unitary polity with a federal bias?
The answer lies in the collective wisdom and consciousness of 1.2 billion people. Federal units are quintessential but the yardstick to determine the basis on which federal units should be formed lies unanswered.
[i] Vappala Pangunni Menon CSI, CIE (30 September 1893 – 31 December 1965) was an Indian civil servant who was the Constitutional Adviser and Political Reforms Commissioner to the last three Viceroys during British rule in India. He played a vital role in India's partition and political integration.
[ii] In 1947, India was divided into two sets of territories, one under direct British rule, and the other under the suzerainty of the British Crown, with control over their internal affairs remaining in the hands of their hereditary rulers, and control over external affairs and defence being vested in the Government of India under the Viceroy. The political integration of these territories into India was a declared objective of the Indian National Congress, and the Government of India pursued this over the next decade. Through a combination of factors, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru convinced the rulers of the various princely states to accede to India. This process of extending Central Government’s authority and acquiring de facto and de jure control of colonial enclaves is known as Political Integration of India.
[iii] The Government of India appointed the Linguistic Provinces Commission under the Chairmanship of Justice S.K. Dhar to study the feasibility of organizing states on linguistic basis.
[iv] The States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) was a body constituted by the Central Government of India in 1953 to recommend the reorganisation of state boundaries. In 1955, after nearly 2 years of study, the Commission recommended that India's state boundaries should be reorganised to form 16 states and 3 union territories.
[v] It was known as Fazal Ali Commission as it was headed by Justice Fazal Ali.
[vi] Gorkhaland Territorial Adminsitration (GTA) is a semi-autonomous administrative body for the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills in West Bengal, India. GTA replaced the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, which was formed in 1988 and administered the Darjeeling hills for 23 years. GTA presently has three hill subdivisions namely Darjeeling, Kurseong and Mirik and some areas of Siliguri subdivision of Darjeeling District and the whole of Kalimpong district under its authority.
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