When Nagas follow the Constitution and ruffle the Centre

Monday, 9 December 2013 - 11:22am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

Article 370, the section of the Constitution that creates and defines the relationship between Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Union, is in the news again. The Indian Union is not a homogenous union. Its constituent parts are not created equal nor does the Constitution treat them equally. Some provisions apply to specific constituents, typically beyond ‘mainstream India’.

‘Mainstream India’ is where the Indian Army is not deployed at present. This quasi army-rule remains largely invisible to the ‘mainstream’ because most people from the ‘mainstream’ simply do not have reasons to venture ‘out there’. The converse is not true. In an over-centralised system, largesse in the form of opportunities, public facilities, institutions and infrastructure are inordinately showered on a zone around New Delhi. Hence, those from ‘out there’ have to trudge to the ‘mainstream’ centre, whether they like it or not.

Auspicious days have a special value in our lives. ‘Bad guys’ specially choose such occasions to mar the jubilation. December 1, 2013, marked the 50th anniversary of the Indian Union declaring the state of Nagaland. As late as 1936, the British weren’t sure where to put the ‘Northeast’ — in the Empire in India or the soon-to-be-carved Burma. Indeed,  after 1937, some Naga areas ‘fell’ in Burma. It is funny that the land, that inalienable heirloom of ancestors on which a people live and their identity thrives is not the most important truth — but lines drawn without consent and ‘falling’ on people are. Nagas have led the longest struggle (someone’s terrorism, someone’s freedom movement — we all know the routine disclaimer) against both the post-British Burmese and Indian states.

In 1960, Jawaharlal Nehru said in the Lok Sabha: “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 homogenized, Hindustan (Hindi-heartland) centric identity. However, the context is important. When Nehru was speaking those words, he knew the stakes. A few years before that, certain Naga groups had conducted a plebiscite. The Indian Union did not consider any such plebiscite legal, hence no question of respecting the verdict of something it considered illegal anyway. 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. They negotiated the subsequent statehood status for Nagaland. Special provisions for the State of Nagaland were incorporated as Article 371A of the Indian Union’s constitution.

On the eve of the 50 glorious years of Nagaland’s life as a Indian Union state, the ruling party of Nagaland has decided to take Article 371A of the Constitution and certain pronouncements by the federal Petroleum Ministry at face value. The Nagaland state government wants the right to use all its natural resources and has cited the Constitution to say it is constitutional. This is the problem of ‘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 know how this ends. There will be ‘high-level’ ‘meetings’. The Governor (a former CBI apparatchik and hence a New Delhi agent) will become active. The state government will probably back down. It will be ‘all peaceful’ on the Northeastern front. And the Union of India will have lost another opportunity to breathe much-needed life-blood into its federal structure.

The author is a brain scientist at MIT


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