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Demands For Autonomy: Internal Weaknesses Of A Multiethnic, Multicultural, And Multinational State

The greatest strength of Indian polity is its gravest weakness. India is hailed by many as a shining example of a multicultural, multiethnic, and multinational democratic state, which has successfully weathered many internal threats of disintegration. But still, the assertive face of multiple ethno cultural identities has worried many observers. Analysts have hinted at the Indian state’s1 diminishing capacity to address the developmental aspirations of the multiple ethno national groups, who have begun to assert their right to autonomous self-administration within the broader framework of the Indian state. The unfolding internal divisions, characterized by lack of trust (if not distrust) among diverse ethno cultural groups, have threatened to wreck the Indian state from within. The assertive diversity of Indian society is thus perceived to be weakening the unitarian fabric of the Indian state.

In addition to internal demands that seek to redraw the internal borders, there have been demands for secession from the Indian state, which seek to redraw the external frontiers. The state, in spite of its nuclear strength, is thus confronted with problems that threaten to redefine its territorial configuration.

In this chapter an attempt is made to present the cases of demands for autonomy and analyze them critically. The demands for secession will be dealt with separately and comparison between the two will be made toward the end of the discussion.

Autonomy in the Indian Context

The issue of autonomy changes its connotation in the context of Indian polity and in this sociopolitical milieu has to be studied in a federal context. Autonomy in the classical sense would mean a community’s legitimate, sovereign right to self-determination or self-legislation, unimpeded by any external intervention. However, any attempt to study “autonomy” in the classical sense in the Indian case is bound to lead to conceptual delusions and contradictory conclusions. Autonomy in the Indian case has been primarily used to denote the demands of plural regional-ethno-national identities for a greater degree of self-administration within the larger federal framework of the Indian constitution. The other form of autonomy, which seeks to promote the idea of self-determination outside the purview of the Indian federation, is usually termed secessionist, antistatist, and antinational. For a clearer understanding, one could term the former an “integrationist model of autonomy” and the later a “disintegrationist model of autonomy.”

Integrationist autonomy within the Indian union, without altering the central preponderance in the federal domain’”which means dependence on (and not autonomous independence from) the central administration’”has been accommodated, even after initial hesitation. In many cases, after the initial sanctioning of autonomous councils, the Indian state has granted statehood (status of a full-fledged federating unit with representative governance within the Indian union) to such autonomous units. Demands for “autonomy” within the Indian union but which seek to redefine the center-state (federation-unit) relations in favor of the states (units), have been viewed with suspicion and as a prelude to secession, which could lead to the breakup of the Indian state in the long term. This has often provoked the coercive might of the Indian state. In cases of demands for secession, the secessionist forces have often agreed to demands of greater autonomy, which would mean redefining the center-state relations. But the Indian state has not yet grown out of the postcolonial inertia of unitarian federalism to the degree that it can accommodate such demands. The obsession with a unitarian federal system has paralyzed the state’s capacity to tackle such problems without violence. It is helpful to have a brief historical overview to elucidate these points.


The Indian state was confronted with demands for the reorganization of the states (provinces or federating units) immediately after independence. Upon the recommendation of the States Reorganization Committee (SRC) of 1953, headed by Fazal Ali, the provinces were reorganized on the basis of language. By the 1960s, the provinces seemed to have settled down within the redrawn boundaries. The larger province of Bombay was divided into Marathi-speaking Maharashtra and Gujarati-speaking Gujarat. Punjab was trifurcated into a Punjabi-speaking Punjab, Hindi-speaking Haryana, and Pahari-speaking Himachal Pradesh. The Kannada-speaking areas of Bombay were transferred to the state of Mysore/Karnataka, and similarly, Telugu-speaking areas of the Madras province were transferred to Andhra Pradesh. The linguistic reorganization looked complete and the first phase of reorganization of the states within the Indian union was over.

Then came the demands for autonomy in the northeastern region. The aspirations of the tribal groups were soon recognized by the Indian state. The states of Manipur, Tripura, and Meghalaya were formed in the late 1970s. The North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA) was granted statehood under the name of Arunachal Pradesh in 1987. The restive Nagas and the Mizos, however, were granted statehood only after violent encounters with the Indian state. The Naga insurgency continues until the present day, even after the formation of the state of Nagaland in 1956. The Mizo insurgency subsided after the 1973 agreement, which declared the Mizo district of Assam as a Union Territory. Mizoram was later granted full state status after the 1986 agreement with the rebel leader Laldenga.

However, this did not completely exhaust the aspirations for autonomous administration or statehood by many groups. The cultural differences within the overarching linguistic unity, in many cases, led to demands for statehood within the primarily language-based federating units of the Indian union.

The Telengana movement raged on until the 1980s in the less developed Telugu-speaking region in western Andhra Pradesh, which was under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad and was later merged with the more economically developed, Telugu-speaking, coastal Andhra Pradesh. The less assertive Kosala movement in western Orissa still continues. Similarly, the movements for Chhattisgarh in Madhya Pradesh, the Jharkhand movement in Bihar, Orissa, and Madhya Pradesh, and the movement for Uttaranchal/Uttarakhand in Uttar Pradesh, have been active since the 1950s until they were granted statehood in 2001. This has led to an intensification of demands for autonomy from other ethno cultural groupings within Indian society. Recent forceful demands for statehood for Vindhyanchal, Vidarbha, Haritdesh, Coorg, Kamtapur, Gorkhaland, Madhyadesh, Bundelkhand, and Purvanchal have demonstrated the rising aspirations of subcultural groupings to have their own autonomous administrative units.

In the 1950s and 1960s, in the wake of the movement for constitutional recognition of Hindi as the national language, there was a lurking suspicion in the minds of the political elite in the southern states of India that the elite of the northern region’”perceived to be mainly of Aryan racial stock’”were intent on subjugating the predominantly Dravidian south through their language policy. The anti-Hindi movement in the south had assumed violent proportions and there were demands for the secession of southern states and establishment of Drvidastan. The Indian state demonstrated remarkable wisdom in accommodating the demands of the southerners and recognized English as an official language along with Hindi.

However, this spirit of accommodation gradually gave way to a statist-integrationist zeal and all demands for autonomy were treated with force, leading to complications further down the line. The unwillingness of the state to share its authority with the constituent units was the primary reason for this “siege” attitude. During the 1980s, an increasingly closed and paranoid Indian state adopted a siege mentality when confronted by demands for autonomy, which bordered on secession. The demands for autonomous statehood within the Indian union were also unfavorably received by the central administration.

The 1980s saw the rise of secessionist movements in Punjab, Kashmir, and some of the northeastern states (Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura). The movements for autonomy in several regions’”Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh, Uttaranchal, and Gorkhaland’”also gathered momentum and made their presence felt on the political horizon. The response of the ruling Congress Party under Rajiv Gandhi was to negotiate with the leaders of the more assertive movements. There were a series of accords with the Akali Dal leadership in Punjab, with the All Assam Students’ Union (which later became Assam Gana Parishad), and with Gorkha leader Subhas Ghising in 1985. In all these cases, the central government led by the Congress Party seemed accommodating and granted some amount of autonomy to the assertive units. In the case of Jharkhand, the Congress tried to absorb the assertive leadership and thus defuse the movement.

However, during the 1990s when the movements for Uttaranchal, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh came to the fore, Congress was rather undecided about the question of granting autonomy to these regions. But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’”the party currently leading the coalition in power in India’”during the days of its ascendancy in the 1990s, exhibited a spirit of accommodation and openly supported the idea of statehood for aspiring groups. This also helped it gain political footholds in areas such as Jharkhand, western Orissa, and Uttaranchal. The reservations of the Congress leadership in December 1998 led the BJP to withdraw the Vananchal/Jharkhand Bill. However, the grant of statehood to Jharkhand, Uttaranchal, and Chhattisgarh in the year 2000 has conveyed an attitude of sympathy toward such assertions from the opposition as well as the parties in power at the center.

Three New States within India


The movement for the recognition of Jharkhand or Vananchal, as it was later called, had been supported for over fifty years by the Adivasi people of the Chhotanagpur Plateau’“Santhal Parganas belt, which included eighteen districts from Bihar, four from Madhya Pradesh, three from West Bengal, and two from Orissa. This larger concept of Jharkhand was later dismissed in 1998 by the BJP’s principal spokesperson for the cause, Babulal Marandi, the then union minister of state for environment and forests, as “politically unfeasible.” In December the BJP had brought in a states reorganization bill to accord statehood on Jharkhand, but under stiff resistance from Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and noncooperation from Congress, the bill fell through. In August 2000, Congress support was unanimous and with its pressure on RJD the bill was safely carried through both the houses of the Indian parliament. In November 2000, the state of Jharkhand came into being. Ironically, Babulal Marandi was one of the principal bidders for the chief minister’s post in the new state. However, the present state of Jharkhand was carved out of the state of Bihar and did not comprise the districts from Orissa, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh.


The Chhattisgarh (literally meaning “thirty-six forts”) was formerly known as Dandakaranya, Gondvana, Dakshin Kaushal. Since Madhya Pradesh was constituted in 1956, at different times, various movements have agitated for the creation of Chhattisgarh state under the leadership of several leaders. Finally, the Madhya Pradesh state assembly, dominated by the Congress Party, passed a unanimous resolution to this effect on 18 March 1994. Subsequently, the BJP also took up the issue and reaped their political reward in the 1997 elections. In August 2000, the region was granted statehood by the Indian parliament.


The movement for Uttarakhand/Uttaranchal began in the early 1950s and came up for discussion in the States Reorganization Committee in its deliberations between 1953 and 1955. It picked up recently after the reservation policy of the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh to reserve a quota of 27 percent for “other backward castes” in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government services. Uttaranchal has a majority of higher-caste population (nearly 85 percent) and they objected to this policy for they feared marginalization of their share in governmental services. The local BJP unit promptly advocated the cause of a separate state of Uttarakhand and surprisingly the lower-caste parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati and Samajwadi Janata Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav also supported the idea. This state also came into being in the year 2000.

The Apprehension

The openness of the political leadership to the idea of the formation of smaller states for electoral gains has led many analysts to conclude that such steps will open up a Pandora’s Box and demands for autonomous units will proliferate. This could well lead to a “remapping” of the Indian federation. In fact, the assertions by people of Kamtapur in West Bengal and the renewed demands of Gorkhas for a separate state have strengthened such suspicions. There have also been demands for statehood from other regions (Vidarbha, Harit Desh, Coorg, Vindhyanchal, Purvanchal). Many others are in the offing: Malwa, Kutch, Saurastra, Mithilanchal, Kosala (Western Orissa), etc. It may be useful to outline some of these upcoming demands for autonomy/statehood.


Situated in northeast Maharastra, Vidarbha is an economically backward region but rich in mineral and forest resources. The economic viability of the Vidarbha region as a separate province was recognized by the State Reorganization Committee in 1953’“1955. However, the demand for a separate state/ province for Vidarbha (which predates the Chhatisgarh and Uttaranchal movements) was subsumed in the Samyukta Maharastra movement (a movement for unification of all Marathi-speaking areas) in the 1960s and it was absorbed in the state of Maharashtra. However, the demand for a Vidarbha state continued to be raised intermittently.

The Vidarbha Rajya Sangharsha Samiti (“Struggle for the Separate State of Vidarbha”) and Maha-Vidarbha Sangharsha Samity (“Association for the Struggle for Greater Vidarbha”), the organizations that led this movement, gathered speed in the 1990s when BJP supported the idea of a separate Vidarbha state. A statutory development board for the region came into existence in 1994 in recognition of the need for developmental initiatives in the region. The BJP’s advocacy had a political motive’”it wanted to penetrate into the Vidarbha region, traditionally regarded as a bastion of the Congress Party. The BJP advocacy was, however, contested by its ally Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, which is still wedded to the idea of preserving and nurturing “the emotional and linguistic unity of all Maharashtrians.” In fact, in 1996, when the Vidarbha demand was raised, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray had vowed to lead the movement for statehood himself if the region’s developmental backlog was not cleared within two years. Since the creation of three new states in August 2000, the demand for the Vidarbha state has gathered further momentum. The decision of the Congress Party apart from other parties on the issue will determine the course of the movement in the near future.

Vindhya Pradesh

Since the creation of Chhattisgarh state, a demand for “Vindhya Pradesh” has been raised by the politicians from the region headed by the speaker of the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly, Srinivas Tiwari. Tiwari reportedly called twenty-five MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) to his residence in March 2000 to discuss the issue of a separate state of Vindhya Pradesh. This would comprise six districts of the Vindhya region: Datia, Tikamgarh, Rewa, Seedhi, Shehdol, and Satna. After the independence of India from the colonial rule, Vindhya Pradesh came into existence in 1948 and a government was installed in the state after the 1952 elections. However, it was merged with Madhya Pradesh in 1956. Thousands of people had protested the move and were jailed. On 10 March 2000, the state assembly unanimously adopted the nongovernment resolution to carve out a Vindhya state. The resolution had been forwarded to the central government in New Delhi and the center has yet to make a decision on this.


The Kodagu Rajya Mukti Morcha (KRMM), which roughly translated means the Movement for the Liberation of the State of Kodagu, is an organization led by N. U. Nachappa that has campaigned for a separate state of Coorg to be carved out of the present state of Karnataka. The declaration by Deve Gowda, the then prime minister of India, in 1996 that Uttarakhand would soon be granted statehood, gave a further boost to this movement. The Kodagu or Coorg district is the smallest district in the southwest of the Karnataka state. Until its amalgamation into the Kannada state of Mysore (now Karnataka) on linguistic grounds following the recommendation of the States Reorganization Commission, the Coorg functioned as a Part “C” state from January 1952 to 1November 1956’”slightly less than five years. The KRMM sponsored the “Madikeri Declaration” of 22 November 1996, projected as the Cauveryland charter of rights, followed soon after the “Gowda Declaration,” which formed the framework and the inspiration for the KRMM to lead Coorg to the “liberation of Kodagu and its creation as a separate Ethnic State.” The KRMM was later known as the Coorg National Council (CNC) with Nachappa as its secretary-general. The CNC also has a web site to promote its cause.


Purvanchal Mukti Morcha’”roughly translated as Liberation Front for Purvanchal’”headed by Raj Kumar Singh, first demanded a separate state of Purvanchal comprising twenty districts of eastern UP in 1996. This is a relatively backward area, and the “green revolution” that brought agricultural prosperity to the western districts of the state could not touch this area. The people in this area speak a local dialect, “Bhojpuri.” The leaders of this area have often held the discriminatory policy of the Uttar Pradesh government responsible for the backwardness of the area. This has led them to demand a separate state. The Pragatisheel Bhojpur Samaj (“Progressive Bhojpuri Society”) has made frequent demands for an even larger Bhojpur, comprising twenty-five districts of eastern UP and neighboring Bihar, with Varanasi as its capital, and inclusion of the Bhojpuri language in the Eighth Schedule of the Indian constitution.

Harit Desh

The SRC of 1953 debated the possibility of creating a separate state of Western Uttar Pradesh (Paschim Pradesh) and 97 out of the 100 MLAs from this region then submitted a memorandum to the SRC demanding the separation of the western districts. But it was discouraged by the Congress leadership of the time on the excuse that there was no public support behind the issue. This region has benefited most during the green revolution and the planned economy of the Nehru era and is a prosperous area. Recently, Ajit Singh, son of former prime minister Charan Singh and leader of the farmers, has called this region Harit Desh (the “Green Country”) and convened a meeting of western UP leaders on 19 August 2000 to forcefully put his demand for a Harit Pradesh. Recently the BJP leadership expressed its willingness to support the demand purely for electoral advantage. The issue of Harit Desh is being debated now in India with great enthusiasm. The future of this movement will depend on the political mobilization of the people in the region and the interests the leaders of the movement take in the issue.


The Bundelkhand region of central India encompasses twelve districts of northern Madhya Pradesh (MP) and five districts of southern Uttar Pradesh. The area once known in history as Bundelkhand is identified with the districts of Jhansi, Lalitpur, Jalaun, Hamirpur, Banda, and Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh, Sagar, Chattarpur, Tikamgarh, Panna, and Damoh in Madhya Pradesh and parts of Gwalior, Datia, Shivpuri, and Chanderi. It is located in the central Hindi belt, south of the Yamuna River, between the fertile Gangetic plain stretching across northern UP and the highlands of central MP. This region has recently witnessed a movement for the recognition of the separate state of Bundelkhand led by Raja Bundela, a film actor.


The movement for creating a separate state of Kamtapur from the state of West Bengal is being spearheaded by the Koch-Rajbangshis, who mainly inhabit areas in north Bengal and parts of Assam. Besides statehood, they are also demanding the inclusion of the Kamtapuri language in the Eighth Schedule and the propagation of the Kamtapuri language and culture through state-controlled radio and television. The two organizations taking the lead in this field are the Kamtapur Peoples’ Party (KPP) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO). The former is more moderate; yet its leader, Atul Roy, reportedly said recently: “We will not abandon our demand for statehood, and if Rajbongshi mothers have to lose their sons for achieving the goal of statehood, so be it.”2

The KLO is allegedly coordinating its militant activities with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which is demanding formation of an independent Assam. The fledgling KLO militants are reportedly being groomed by seasoned militants from the ULFA in the Dooars region (known for its teas), the Buxa reserve forests, Cooch Behar and North Bengal’s bordering areas with Assam, and Bangladesh. Recently, KLO activists have launched a number of attacks on Communist Party workers. The situation became so critical that police teams from Assam and West Bengal launched a joint operation code-named “Operation Shadow” in mid-November 2000 to arrest the activists. On 6 November 2000, Kamtapur activists descended in the thousands on the Nilmoni Airport in Cooch Behar town in support of the demand for a separate state of Kamtapur, and held a hugely successful mass rally. The movement for a Kamtapur state is progressing quickly at present. The Kamtapuris have also resorted to violence to uphold their cause.


Gorkhaland was granted autonomous council status in August 1985. However, in the wake of the recent formation of three new states, the Gorkhas have renewed demands for a separate state for the Gorkha people, comprising parts of the hill subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong, and Kalimpong. The Gorkha National Liberation Front and the Gorkhaland United Front have recently marked the renewal of their agitation for Gorkhaland with a series of strikes.


Several Bodo insurgent groups have been working since the 1960s for goals that range from the establishment of a Bodo autonomous council, to a separate Bodo state within India, to total independence from India. The Bodos were granted an autonomous council in February 1993, but were unsatisfied with the amount of autonomy in this arrangement and demanded a separate state, which soon led to demands for “a sovereign Bodoland.” The Bodos have taken to violence to drive their points home. Their violent expulsion of non-Bodos from the region has resulted in the displacement of more than 87,000 ethnic Santhals, and a smaller number of Bengalis and Nepalis have been displaced by the violent conflict between Bodo insurgents and non-Bodos in western Assam. Ethnic tension is rife in Assam, which is home to many ethnic groups. Some groups, such as the Assamese and Bodos, have lived in the region for many centuries. Others, including Bengalis, Santhals, and ethnic Nepalese, migrated there during the 1800s.

The campaign for Bodoland and its attendant violence continues unabated. However, the government’s initiative to bring the Bodos to the discussion table is showing some promise. The recent meeting of some of the Bodo leaders with the Indian home affairs minister showed that the center is powerless as the Assam legislature would not approve a separate state of Bodoland at present. However, it may not be long before a separate state of Bodoland is carved out of Assam within the purview of the Indian constitution. On 18 January 2001, Mainao Daimary, publicity secretary of the Bodo Liberation Tigers, expressed satisfaction at the progress of peace talks between the outfit and the Indian government.

Disintegrationist Autonomy

The unity and integrity of the Indian state, mostly understood in the territorial sense, has clouded the central government’s approach toward demands for confederal autonomy. In some cases, the movements for maximum autonomy have confronted the coercive might of the state and have become violent in nature. In such cases, the fear of disintegration has often led the state to react to such demands with a reflexive statist attitude’”with sweeping, indiscriminate military aggression. In the case of Jammu and Kashmir and some of the northeastern states (such as Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, and Tripura) external support for autonomist-turned-secessionist demands has further complicated matters, compelling the defense mechanism of the Indian state to resort to intense counterinsurgency operations.

But research shows that in many cases, apart from external intervention, unimaginative handling of demands for “autonomy” within the Indian union has itself led to violence. Often it is this descent into violence that has invited external forces to fish in troubled waters. The unending cycle of violence has assumed an “autonomy” of its own and refuses to subside. The example of Kashmir and many instances from the northeast corroborate such a point of view. The autonomy provision for the state of Jammu and Kashmir that is written into the Indian constitution via Article 370 and the articles that seek to determine the relative autonomy of the northeastern states have time and again emerged as irritants for the central administration.

Threats of Secessionism and the State’s Response

Threats of secession from certain sections of the population in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and Nagaland in the Northeast played a great role in legitimizing the centralization of power throughout the 1980s and even in the 1990s. The influence of external forces in all these cases and the tendency of such subversion to spread into other autonomist movements in neighboring areas (Manipur, Tripura, Assam) has further strengthened the arguments favoring a strong center in India in recent years. This has pushed other evolving paradigms of federalism onto the back burner.

On the other hand, the prejudiced response of the Indian state has aggravated many autonomist movements. Any assertion on religious or ethnic grounds has been regarded as inimical to the central principle of unity and integrity of the state and treated with disdain and force. This has worsened matters in Punjab, the Northeast, and even in Jammu and Kashmir. Examination of the initial demands of the autonomists (the Sikhs in the Anandpursahib resolution, the Kashmir resolution for autonomy, or even the demands of the ULFA and Bodos) shows that “threats of secessionism” were mostly made as a bargaining chip. The reactive policies of the state then prepared the grounds for external intervention. The hostile militarism of the state has either induced militancy in some cases or sustained preexisting militancy in some other cases. It is important to note here that in some cases, such as Punjab, the central government has unwittingly nurtured future militants. Congress Party patronage to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is a case in point.

The Case of Kashmir

Any demand for autonomy from the people of Kashmir’”the state that began as a special federating unit in the Indian union’”has been treated as an act of disloyalty toward the union. Ironically, such autonomy was granted to the Kashmiris in Article 370 of the Indian constitution and reinforced by the Jawaharlal Nehru’“Sheikh Abdullah accord in 1952 and the Mirza Afzal Beg’“ G. Parthasarathy talks of 1977. The summary rejection of an autonomy bill, passed in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly by the central BJP dispensation in 2000, suggests the strength of the fundamental suspicion with which the Kashmiri people are regarded.

However, the notion of confederal autonomy initially granted by Article 370 has kept the Kashmiri passion for autonomy alive to the present day. In fact, “autonomy” has cropped up as a safety valve on many occasions. Seeking to absorb Kashmiri disenchantment with the Indian union on the one hand, and ignite the flames of secession or independence on the other, the call for autonomy has proved a halfway house between irrevocable union with the Indian state and complete azadi (independence). The recent espousal of the autonomy cause by Farooq Abdullah, the chief minister of Kashmir, and the rise of popular support for autonomy in the Gallup polls, prove this contention.

The saddest aspect of the whole Kashmir-centric discourse on autonomy has been the overwhelming resistance it has evoked from various quarters to the idea of such a confederal proposition, advocating a rather loose union with the central administration. Any idea of refederalizing the Indian polity with the grant of a greater share of residuary powers has been rejected as an almost blasphemous suggestion. In the face of shrinking economic power with the onset of globalization, perhaps the Indian state has been reluctant to shed its political power lest that would in the long term crystallize disruptive forces at the peripheries and weaken its bases of unity and integrity.


It is useful to analyze the causes of rising ethno cultural assertions in the Indian case. The preceding discussion covers some empirical cases and each case is unique and deserves separate analytical study. However, for the benefit of understanding such autonomist and/or secessionist movements, it is immensely helpful to draw upon the analyses of various scholars and look for the common strands of explanation. Various studies on the movements covered here reveal that the demands for autonomy arise out of the following causes:

Decline of the capacity of the state to cater to the rising aspirations of ethno cultural groups and an attendant temptation to legitimize violence/force as a means of resolving crises arising out of demands placed on the state.

The spread of political awareness naturally leads people to make demands for their rights. And such claims of rights have been viewed with suspicion by the ruling elite in many occasions, compelling the claimants to adopt violent postures leading to subversion and insurgencies.

Growing political awareness has also made people aware of their socioeconomic conditions and the causes of their disadvantages or advantages. In many cases, in the existing states there is a system of what Marxist scholars of development would call “internal colonization” in both economic and cultural senses. Awareness of real or perceived discrimination tends to ignite aspirations for self-legislation and autonomy among a marginalized population.

Rising economic insecurities that have visited many developing and underdeveloped states in the wake of globalization have created the bases for popular disaffection and expanded the bases of political mobilization on grounds of primordial loyalties.

Globalization has also weakened the capacity of the sate to manage such socioeconomic crises with competence.

The system of democracy that is practiced in many of the developing and underdeveloped societies in the Third World puts more emphasis on the mechanism of democratic governance than on values of democracy and liberalism. The consequent calculus of electoral politics has led to the growth of an immensely stratified entrepreneurial elite, especially in multicultural/pluralist societies like India, who have sought to build their constituencies on ever-proliferating ethno cultural identities. This has fractured the existing civil society and ruptured the uniting links and necessitated the introduction of fresh and refined bonds of unity. The state with its inertial status-quo-ism has failed to take the lead by redefining its relations of power with the constituent units. This has led to systemic violence.

The Indian federation has temperamentally behaved as a “union” and not a “federation.” However, the leadership in the country has to take care to adopt federal principles to judge such cases of autonomy and gradually devolve powers (especially financial powers) to the units if it is to contain such ethno cultural assertions.

Among all these explanations there is a common thread of argument that says that the shrinking capacity of the state, underdevelopment, and the politicization of plural peripheral identities, together with the search for power by neo-elites at the margins, have snapped the interethnic and intercultural bonds that have so far drawn them together. This has created new identities and led to an overwhelming craze for autonomy or self-legislation. It is interesting to note that the concessions of statehood in the recent cases were conditioned by sheer electoral calculations and not by considerations of economic viability. And these concessions in no way altered the basic constitutionally guaranteed relationship between the federation and the units, which is lopsided in favor of the federation. Creation of “dependent” states will in no way improve the conditions, and the passion for a greater degree of autonomy will haunt the Indian states until a genuinely devolved refederalized system of governance grows out of the present system of unitarian federal democracy in India.


1. Unless categorically mentioned as the Indian state, “state” will mean federating units in the discussion.

2. See Atol Roy, quoted online in India Abroad, 8 August 2000: http://www.indiaabroad.com

* The article is written by Ashok K. Behuria

* The article was written sometime in 2002, but has been republished as it might shed light on some of the issues that Manipur faces with Naga integrationists’ demand for integration of Naga-inhabited areas.

* The author is assistant director, International Centre for Peace Studies, New Delhi. He has a Ph.D. in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and has written extensively on India-Pakistan relations, the autonomy issue in Kashmir, refugees and human rights, and interstate relations in South Asia.

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