Special Status deceptively projected as Autonomy, Devolution of Power and Administrative Decentralization can be either an end to the struggle for bigger political status or the beginning of extending the administrative power of the Union Government over the states and regions in India.
By Dhiren A Sadokpam
Manipur’s civil society organisations in recent times have started reposing their ‘faith and belief’ in the power and the attractive sparkle of ‘Special Political Status’. This new found faith and belief comes against the backdrop of ostensible hiccups in the more than two-decade old political negotiation between the Nagas and the government of India on one hand and the government of India scrapping Article 370 of the Constitution that granted Special Status to Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 on the other hand.
Article 370 of the Constitution of India is described as a “temporary provision” that grants the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special autonomous status within the Indian union. Under article 370(1)(b), the Union Parliament can only make laws for the state, “in consultation with the Government of the State,” on certain matters that were specified in the Instrument of Accession – namely defense, foreign affairs, and communications. Other matters in the legislative subject lists could apply to Jammu and Kashmir only with the “concurrence of the Government of the State” through a presidential order. Article 370(1)(d) stipulated that other constitutional provisions may be applied to the state from time to time, “subject to such modifications or exceptions” made by the president of India, also through a presidential order, as long as they did not fall within the matters referred to above and except with the concurrence of the state government.
Article 371A in the meanwhile is a Special Constitutional Provision with respect to the State of Nagaland that says no Act of Parliament in respect of religious or social practices of the Nagas, Naga customary law and procedure, administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides.
For the moment, we can take a break from discussing Article 370, Naga political settlement or even Article 371A and now focus on some key issues raised while staking claim to greater autonomy by way of seeking a “Special Status” for the state of Manipur.
Special Status, Special Category Status or Special Constitutional Provision
Before we embark on a discussion on the set topic, let us be clear that the Constitution of India provided special status through an Act that has to be passed by 2/3rds majority in both the houses of Parliament whereas the special category status was granted by National Development Council, which is an administrative body of the Union Government.
For example, Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed a Special Status as per Article 370 and also Special Category Status. But now that Article 35A has been scrapped and it has become a union territory with legislature, special category status does not apply to Jammu and Kashmir anymore.
As per the Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, 11 states namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttarakhand were granted special category status. Special Category Status for plan assistance was granted in the past by the National Development Council to the States that are characterized by a number of features necessitating special consideration. However, following the recommendations of 14th Finance Commission, the Special Category States ceased to exist.
The preceding cursory bits of information make it succinctly clear on what is the working and executable ideas of Special Status, Special Category Status or Special Constitutional Provision etc. These terms are not theoretical or philosophical ideas by any stretch of imagination as any unscrupulous observers would like all to believe. While the terms mentioned here need further dispassionate-scrutiny in the light of bigger concepts like Autonomy, Devolution of Power and Administrative Decentralization etc., which had been invoked at least in the Sixth Schedule [Articles 244(2) and 275(1)] of the Indian Constitution.
Demands for ‘Special Political Status for Manipur’
A popular perception that continues to trigger the quest for a Special Political Status in Manipur is more or less guided by the rejuvenated confidence that numerous issues confronting the state can be comfortably resolved if the State of Manipur enjoys special political autonomy and also improve the political relation with India.
On January 19 this year, the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity (COCOMI) submitted a representation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterating its demands for ‘Special Status for Manipur’ and amendments to the Constitution of India.
COCOMI apparently believes that granting special status to Manipur will correct “historical blunders” that the government of India had inflicted on the state in the past leading to trust deficit.
The representation recounted the history of Manipur — from being an Asiatic kingdom to being under British rule after 1891and also detailed how Manipur was “controversially merged” to India in 1949.
Recalling the events between 1949 to 1972 — from Part C State (comprising both the former chief commissioners’ provinces and some princely states) to statehood, the representation maintained that as a consequence of these events, the statehood accorded to Manipur could not meet the aspirations of the people.
“The post statehood period saw increased political movements with different methods, including armed struggles. The quest for past political and cultural glories, defending human rights, establishment of bicameral legislative system with an aim of providing proportional representation to minor, micro ethnic communities/tribes, a permit system to protect indigenous people self-guarding the territorial integrity were dominant in the public consciousness, ” said the representation submitted to the Prime Minister.
The representation further demanded amendments to Article 2 and 3 of the Indian Constitution so as to ensure Manipur’s territorial integrity and to assuage the feelings of hurt and neglect.
“A new contour for reshaping the Centre-State relationship need to be put in place not only to meet the modern challenges but also to assuage the feeling of hurt of its citizens. A provision for Special Status for Manipur in the constitution and a provision in Article 3 that in respect of Manipur, any changes will be with the concurrence of the Manipur State Legislative Assembly will do wonders to restore the historical pride of the people of Manipur and will have a salutary effect on the various challenges which is cropping up and staying which are inimical to the inclusive development in the state,” COCOMI proposed.
The CSOs’ conglomerate also urged the Prime Minister that in order to mitigate the various challenges that Manipur has been facing, the proposal be considered in the larger interest of the state and the country.
It may be recalled that COCOMI had met Union Home Minister Amit Shah on December 27, 2020 when he visited Manipur and had demanded the granting of ‘Special Status’ to Manipur as per the resolution of the ‘Public Convention for Special Status to Manipur’ held on December 26, 2020 at GM Hall, Imphal.
A snap observation
While the points raised and demands made by COCOMI can be truly appreciated given the exclusive set of political, social and economic conditions that Manipur has experienced in the last seven decades as the primary rationale, it would not be much of a problem for any informed individuals to dissect the issues related to “Special Political Status” in conjunction with bigger concepts like Autonomy, Devolution of Power and Administrative Decentralization and Mechanisms etc.,
Masked by the new idioms of modern institutions, the ethnic communities in Northeast India had been demanding assortment of administrative mechanisms to serve their own community interests. Several autonomy movements came up as early as 1950s and the same was carried on till date with the objectives to carve out new States, Union Territories and Autonomous District Councils. The earliest formation of these autonomous councils include North Cachar Hills (Dima Hasao) Autonomous Council (1951) and Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (1952).
These movements and even the formation of Autonomous Councils have their stories of success, failure and points of negotiation. Till today, attempts are being made to initiate division of administrative institutions and citizens’ privileges on ethnic lines across the region. This is turning out to be a never-ending story even in a State like Manipur even though the current demand is not directly related to seeking autonomy in the form of autonomous councils.
Along with the autonomy demand, the region has also seen mushrooming of new identity assertions. While one may see ethnic assertions as positive search for self-rule, the inter-ethnic conflicts take us towards a different reading and understanding of the concept of Autonomy. Often these conflicts arise out of control over land: each of the communities requires not only to claim as their own but also to have governing and administrative mechanism in operation. While larger ethnic communities take to consolidating their hegemonic presence in the region, the smaller communities are constantly in alliance and in the process of re-negotiating their identities. More than once this writer has argued that most of these renegotiations/reconfigurations are seemingly headed towards a larger process of political formations. These are some intriguing cobweb of political practices clearly visible now and may linger on till a holistic vision of the region is being carved out of collective anxiety.
It is indeed interesting to observe how the quest for Autonomy has been unfolding around the world since the 1940s when decolonisation process began to raise its novel heads. Decolonization of Asia and Africa between 1945 and 1960 is truly significant in this context even though autonomy movements are not necessarily analogous to movements for total self-determination or freedom or sovereignty. Plainly defined, Political Autonomy is the ability as a group of people with a territory by invoking and practising self-rule sans the control of a higher level of government.
However, what we understand in the Indian context is hinged to the granting of “Special Status” to states and regions and in effect, empowering or disempowering them to exercise their wisdom as an autonomous political entity. When one executes a textual analyses of the language used in the Special Provisions given in the Constitution, it is not difficult to find out that there is hardly any effort given to translate these provisions to enable self-rule. One finds them as mere Administrative Decentralization and Mechanisms to prolong an uneasy political relationship through the all-encompassing process of spawning little dependencies inside one huge political entity. Here, it would be noteworthy to point out that the push for more political and economic freedom can be propelled either by sheer financial resource-weakness of those seeking greater autonomy while acknowledging the presence of richly endowed natural resources in their respective regions.
The quest and desire for autonomy or even Autonomy, Devolution of Power and Administrative Decentralization and Mechanisms can be either an end to the struggle for bigger political status or the beginning of deceptive yet real mechanism of extending the administrative power of the Union Government over the states and regions in India. The inability of the Special Constitutional Provision with respect to the State of Nagaland in the form of Article 371A to solve the decades old Naga issue is a clear pointer to this fact.
While seeking ‘Special Political Status’ for the State of Manipur, it is indeed a necessity to dissect all existing or that ceases to exist models/provisions in an effort to at least minimise possible political inabilities. It is to be noted here that all the mechanisms inherent in the so called ‘special status’ and provisions devised so far since the adoption of the Constitution of India, one can well read the role of the a nominal head appointed by the Union Government – the Governor, embedded within the same constitutional texts and powers conferred to him to act as the agent of the Union rendering the concept of autonomy ambiguous and irrelevant. At best, most of these provisions are purely administrative mechanism and not autonomy mechanism.
(Dhiren A. Sadokpam is the Editor-in-Chief, The Frontier Manipur)