The agitation for a new state called Telangana for the Telagu-speaking people of India is in the news again. At the time of writing, there is an agitation going on, sometimes turning violent.
An announcement in 2009 by Home Minister Chidambaram that the Government of India had decided to carve out a new state of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh has caused a storm. The Government quickly retracted, calling for more consultations on the issue.
There are good lessons here for us in Sri Lanka, not to play political games with the aspirations of ethnic or language minorities.
Call for a distinct state
The call for a distinct state for the Telagu speakers had been first raised in India under the British Raj. It was successfully resisted at that time, but never died out completely. After India won independence the great Banyan Tree, under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and the All India Congress Party, totally dominated the body politic. Nothing else grew under it. Nothing was nurtured either.
By design of its Constitution, India is a Union of States, not a Federation. The Constitution of India written by the brilliant Dalit lawyer Dr. Ambedhkar does not in any place refer to a federal system.
Under Pundit Nehru and the All India Congress Party, India was for all purposes a unitary state, all state power and control flowed from New Delhi as Congress controlled the National Parliament and the State Legislatures.
The Indian Army, the Indian Police Service, the Indian Administrative Service, All India services, what Prime Minister of Britain David Lloyd George referred to as the ‘Steel Frame of the Raj,’ supported this centralised governance. But there was dissent at the periphery.
US President John Kennedy’s Ambassador to India during Pandit Nehru’s time John Kenneth Galbraith called the nation a “functional anarchy”. V. S. Naipaul referred to a ‘Million Mutinies Now,’ which was the title of his book on India.
On Pandit Nehru’s demise the cracks appeared. During his lifetime, there were already fissures, in Tamil Nadu, in Kerala, in West Bengal, on state rights and local language issues. Prime Minister Shastri succeeded Pandit Nehru, but died after a short time at Tashkent trying to make peace with Pakistan.
The All India Congress Party’s regional Satraps led by Nijalingappa, decided to install Nehru’s daughter, Indira, as PM, and derisively referred to her as the ‘Gudiya’ or doll of clay, thinking they could manipulate and dominate her.
Indira soon turned the tables on the Satraps; she took control of the Congress Party and Parliament and went on binge of displaying power and arrogance to such as extent that she was nicknamed ‘The Empress of India,’ ‘Bharat Mata,’ and ‘Kali of India,’ etc.
She nationalised banks, took away the Maharaja’s privy purses, created Bangladesh, authorised RAW to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs by training and equipping Tamil separatist groups, went to war with Pakistan, supported the build up of the Sikh Kalistan terrorists in order to undermine moderate Sikh leaders who opposed her, declared a national emergency and took dictatorial powers into her and her son Sanjay’s hands, removed Chief Ministers of Indian states that opposed her or were under opposition control, ordered the Indian Army to attack the Sikh’s Golden Temple at Amritsar when it was turned into a fortress by the same terrorists she at one time nurtured, and did all manner of such dictatorial things in two terms as Prime Minister. In between a Government led by Prime Minister Moraji Desai was in power for a short time.
System kicks back
But the system kicked back. The Indian Supreme Court in the Bommai case limited the President’s hitherto unlimited power to remove and dissolve state governments. Regional parties broke away from Congress and set up regional power bases, in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, the North East, Andhra, Uttar Pradesh, etc.
Subsequent governments were weak coalitions, at the beck and call of regional political parties. Power was devolved, in short India has federalised in a way that Dr. Ambedkhar and Pandit Nehru could not have imagined.
The Indian elites, who support a strong centralised power for India, seem to have evolved a strategy to overcome this diffusion of power and weakening of the centre. The solution: break up the big states so that New Delhi will not have to deal with powerful regional Satraps who have millions of voters backing them, but with a large number of leaders of smaller states.
Witness the new states that have recently come into being: Uttarakhand, Jharkand, Chattisgarh and now Telangana. There are many other culturally-distinct regional groups which demand statehood: Bodoland in Assam, Vidabha in Maharashthra, Gorkhaland in West Bengal and Saurshtra in Gujarat, not to mention the Sikh and Kashmiri militants in Punjab and Kashmir.
Permitting Telangana would definitely fire up these groups too – was that the intention? Mamta Bannerjee in West Bengal recently signed an agreement with the Gurkhas, granting them certain limited powers of self-government. India is certainly federalising; will she also disintegrate?
Lessons for Sri Lanka
What are the lessons for Sri Lanka in this whole sordid story? Let’s examine it from the prism of the demand for a federal Sri Lanka. Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike first articulated a federal solution for Ceylon’s ethnic diversity in 1926, in a speech at Jaffna and a series of newspaper articles.
The Kandyan National Assembly in their submission to the Donoughmore Commission in 1929 asked for a federal system with three provinces, as was before the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1829. The Commissioners rejected the Kandyan Claim.
In 1938 Leonard Woolf, a British Civil Servant, who had served in Jaffna, Kandy and Hambantota also proposed a Swiss cantonal type federal government for Ceylon. In 1951 the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi put forward a claim for a federal system of government. The 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact and the 1965 Dudley Chelvanayagam Pact, were attempts to federalise the unitary government, but failed. In 1976 the TULF by its Vadukkodai Resolution demanded the separate state of Tamil Eelam, which in time sponsored and nurtured by RAW of India, resulted in a vicious civil war which began in 1976 and which ended only in 2009.
In between, the District Development Councils were offered as a panacea which was of no avail. At Thimpu in 1985, the Thimpu Principles were first articulated, which has since been the basis of the Tamil people’s terms for a settlement.In 2002 at Oslo by a communiqué, a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka was referred to. In 2006 an All Party Conference and an All Party Representative Committee was appointed which produced majority and minority reports.
In 2007 Prof. Tissa Vitarana, the Chair of the APRC, issued what he called a synthesis report; the matter in still unresolved. Sri Lanka seems to have gone in the opposite direction since then, strengthening central presidential power. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution concentrates tremendous power in the office of the president of the republic. It now seems that once again a Parliamentary Select Committee is going to be constituted to come up with a solution.
Responsibility and accountability
Responsibility and accountability is a necessary corollary of power. It is not possible to insulate an institution which implements power from the correlated responsibility and accountability for acts and omissions. There are two types of accountability, enforceable ones and intangibles ones. The enforceable ones may be subverted by influencing the institutions which are supposed to enforce them. But the intangible ones, public opinion, etc., especially in this age of Facebook, Twitter and mobile connectivity, hangs over the wielder of absolute power like the proverbial sword of Damocles; one never knows when it will drop down.
Legend has it that Damocles had to sit at a meal at the court of Dionysius with a sword hanging by a single hair above his head. He had praised Dionysius’ happiness and Dionysius had wanted him to understand how quickly happiness could be lost!
India’s most famous son and the world’s Thathagatha (the Enlightened One), Gautama the Buddha in essence also preached that nothing is permanent. Consider the Arab Spring and how Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt were forced to abdicate after decades of dictatorship.Gadaffi of Libya is history. Saleh of Yemen ran away to Saudi Arabia but has suddenly returned to continue the civil war, though, in the scorching Arab Summer that follows and during Ramadan, the al Assad’s of Syria and the Khalifas of Bahrain seem to be fighting back. But remember, in the end nothing is permanent, as Keynes famously said: “In the long term, we’ll all be dead!”
The emergence of strong regional parties in India, controlling the states led by regional satraps, who influence the formation of the Union coalition government at New Delhi, has led to the weakening of the national parties and weak coalitions at the centre.
This in turn has led to regional parties being rewarded with ‘lucrative’ ministries to ensure their support to coalition governments.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Government is engulfed in corruption allegations due to the activities of cabinet ministers representing these regional parties. The Auditor General of the Government of India has issued a groundbreaking report which excoriates the Government over the Delhi Commonwealth Games.
At all levels corruption is perceived to be endemic in India, among administrators, national, state and local politicians, the armed services and even private business. It is getting so bad that economists fear it is affecting Foreign Direct Investment into India.
Imagine the situation now, if the Government suddenly says that the proposals placed before the Doughnomore Commission, by the Kandyan National Assembly, the so-called Kandyan Federal Claim, could be considered for implementation? All hell would break out, opening old wounds over which much blood had been spilled over the past three decades.
This is the danger of playing political games with language and ethnic feelings for narrow political gain.
India is now experiencing this over the Telangana issue. Recently around 50,000 people in the Telangana region of South Andhra Pradesh defied an unofficial curfew to rally in support of a separate state, within the Indian Union.
Police detained around 1000,000 demonstrators in public auditoriums and stadiums to prevent them attending the rally in Hyderabad. The protestors labelled the demonstration as a million man rally.
At Osmania University in Hyderabad Police were forced to use tear gas to disperse protestors. Barricades and police road blocks were everywhere to stop protestors from grouping. All train and bus services in Telangana region were suspended.
The final decision on a new state lies with the Parliament of India. The Andhra State Assembly must also pass a resolution approving its creation. Recently Indian Home Minister Chidambaram urged the political parties in Andhra Pradesh to consult and arrive at a consensus on the Telangana issue. Four of the recognised political parties have not yet made up their minds. The lesson here is that once the genie of a separate state is out of the lamp, whether within a union of states or outside, getting the genie back into the lamp is a battle that has a terrible price – as we have learnt, the hard way.
National reconciliation is fundamentally a matter of winning hearts and minds. Building trust among people whose perception is that they have been short-changed of their human, social and economic development for decades.
Quick fixes, necessarily short-term, and military and political strategies have been proved over time to be unsuccessful and result only in the worsening of the problem. The recent local government elections reflect the humongous divide which separates our people’s political aspirations. When will we ever learn?
(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)