Updated: January 29, 2022 9:20:16 am
Like every year, the imagery of a powerful and deeply diverse nation was meticulously demonstrated this Republic Day through an impressive military parade, the display of India’s air power and the diverse themes exhibited by the states, Union Territories and government departments in their colourful tableaus. Away from New Delhi, the state/UT capitals saw a similar pageantry interspersed by speeches by governors, chief ministers and other dignitaries. Although the themes and content of the pageantry and speeches have changed over time, what remains constant about Republic Day is the display of the state’s power and the demonstration of patriotism.
Such exercises are, no doubt, an integral part of state and nation-building. We may, however, ask: Is the extraordinary display of the might and diversity of the country on a few occasions such as Republic Day enough? I contend that while such displays are necessary, they need to be accompanied by an enduring commitment to our constitutional ideals and values in ways that embed the state and the nation in the popular psyche. From the perspective of the country’s Northeast, conversations in two areas are in order.
The first is the commitment to the ideal of “equal” and “group-differentiated” citizenship rights. The founding fathers of the country recognised early on that a realistic way to politically integrate the different tribal groups in the Northeast was to reconcile our constitutional commitments to equal citizenship rights with the imperative of accommodating group-differentiated rights. This was a realistic solution to two exigencies: The popular mobilisation for “self-rule” in parts of the Northeast — the 1951 Naga plebiscite, for instance, was reported to have been supported by “99.9 per cent of the Naga population” — and the region being governed by disparate customary laws. Affirmation of the differential rights of tribal groups on land through customary laws and religious practices undergirds the institutional protection enshrined in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution — they apply to tribal areas of several parts of the Northeast today.
However, this institutional arrangement often becomes problematic as it’s founded on an unequal two-tiered rights regime that distinguishes tribal “citizens” from non-tribal “denizens” by permanently excluding the latter from de jure ownership and acquisition of land/property in tribal areas. The 73rd year of our Republic occasions serious thinking on envisioning institutions that accommodate the distinctive needs of non-tribal “outsiders”. It is equally imperative to realise that this problem is no longer restricted to the non-tribals. Thanks to extensive land-grabbing by the dominant tribal elites, often in connivance with the non-tribal “outsiders” who have become the de facto landowners, the vast majority of tribals face large-scale landlessness with serious economic consequences. Unless the inherent flaws in the asymmetric institutions are immediately addressed, they can implode and unleash bloody fratricidal conflicts.
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It is also imperative to underline that the sons-of-the-soil movements in Assam and Tripura since the 1970s — embers of which are present in the persistent drive to privilege the khilonjias (autochthones) over “illegal” immigrants in Assam — are driven by a pervasive sense of insecurity about identity and land-ownership. The situation is made more precarious by the inability of the state to control “illegal” immigration. Such movements become steeped in a majoritarian way of thinking that targets the Bengali Muslims as “illegal” outsiders irrespective of the fact that many of them are indigenous to Assam. The sectarian emotions and sense of insecurity unleashed by the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 to permanently disenfranchise Muslim “immigrants” is a reminder of this slippery slope where our commitment to fraternity and equal citizenship rights has been severely tested.
The second set of conversations to embed the state into the popular psyche in ways that help consolidate nation-building pertain to renewing our commitment to democracy and constitutionalism. Such a commitment needs to be anchored in daily plebiscitary attempts, not only to promote democratic justice but also to check abuse of state power — a situation exacerbated by the pandemic when the state has invested itself with extraordinary powers. This invariably has to be a mutually reinforcing commitment from the top and bottom.
From the top, the Indian state needs to commit itself to promoting substantive democracy by protecting the rule of law and enlarging democratic settings to leverage power-sharing within and across groups/ communities. Institutions should be tailored to give various groups, including women, effective voice and participatory rights not only in democratic deliberations but also in policymaking and implementation. From the bottom, the onus is on groups like the Nagas and Bodos that enjoy autonomous “self-rule” to be accommodative of, and willing to share power with women, other tribal and non-tribal groups to foster democratic justice.
It is also imperative for the state to acknowledge its abuse of power and renew its commitment to constitutionalism. To begin with, labelling human rights activists as anti-nationals and jailing them under draconian laws like UAPA on flimsy grounds such as criticising the government, or other such pretexts should stop. It also needs to accept the fallacy and inefficacy of relying on its “coercive monopoly of power” to crush movements in the region through the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) and dismissing these movements as “law and order” problems. The persistence of the Naga armed movement and the proliferation of other such movements in the Northeast only illustrate the inefficacy of such means. Instead of winning the hearts and minds of the Naga rebels and deepening nation-building, AFSPA has become what the B P Jeevan Reddy Committee (2005) rightly called a major instrument of “oppression” and “alienation” in Northeast India. AFSPA has militarised Indian democracy and is seen as the cause for several human rights violations. The recently botched encounter in Oting in Nagaland’s Mon district undertaken by the 21 Para Special Forces, that killed 14 innocent people of the Konyak community, is a case in point. There has been a widespread campaign for the withdrawal of the AFSPA after this incident.
The depiction of state grandeur on Republic Day is mesmerising. It can be made more meaningful by renewing our commitment to the cardinal ideals and values enshrined in the Constitution.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 29, 2022 under the title ‘In Northeast, work to be done’. The writer is professor and head of the department of political science, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad
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