The changed status of Delhi is an occasion to look at the entire picture of Indian federalism and to ask whether it is in accordance with the most modern traditions in statecraft.
by BA and Venkatesh Sundaram
The BJP led NDA Union Government tabled a bill in the Lok Sabha to amend the Government of the National Capital Territory Act of 1991, which was easily passed, and then passed by voice vote in the Rajya Sabha by a decent majority and subsequently received the Presidential assent and was turned into law some time ago. The law now requires the Government of NCT to mean the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi who is an appointed official, taking away powers from the elected Government of the Chief Minister of Delhi and the Legislative Assembly and its various committees. The reason given by the Centre is that this is required for smooth day to day functioning of the National Capital region. Various parties and individuals including retired senior bureaucrats have issued statements stating that this strikes at the heart of Indian federalism.
In the recent past, one of the most egregious examples of violation of Indian federalism has been the liquidation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, and its replacement by Union Territories. At the time that this was done in August 2019, some of the voices that have now protested the actions against the Delhi Government had welcomed the change in status of the Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, there have always been longstanding historical questions surrounding the accession of that region to the Indian Union, and moreover, there was a constitutional protection for its special status in the Union. In one fell swoop at the end of over 70 years of the Indian Union. It was said that no region deserves any special status and in the last decades of chauvinism and hyper-nationalism, the egregious act of the dissolution of the State of Jammu and Kashmir was celebrated as somehow being a triumph of a centralized India and a way in which rebellious provinces could be brought to heel. Whatever the merits and demerits of that, it was a trend setter for what was to come, and for the imposition of brute force of the Centre on the provinces that constitute India.
At the time of the writing of the Constitution of India, there was a consciousness of the fact that India is a diverse country with different regions having different histories, languages and cultures; some administered as Princely States, while other regions had been under direct British Rule. In the early years between 1947 and 1950 the unification took place, both by persuasion as well as by force, as in the cases of Hyderabad, Junagadh and Manipur, to name some examples, and also by an accession that led to an international dispute with Pakistan of Jammu and Kashmir. In the decades to follow, the tiny kingdom of Sikkim was also incorporated into the Indian Union, and so was the region of Goa which continued to stay under Portuguese rule until 1960, while the French administered regions of Pondicherry were incorporated into the Indian Union. It may be noted that whether in the case of Kashmir or Manipur or Sikkim or any other, it was not thought important to even ascertain what the desire and aspirations of the people inhabiting those regions were – let alone try to take steps towards fulfilling them.
Making full use of the high tide of nationalist fervour and offering, not very correctly, the hope that the new Union would give rise to harmonious development of all regions and nations constituting India, some federal guarantees were accorded. Over the decades, states were organised along linguistic lines, and broken up in the recent past to accommodate local factors and demands of local satraps.
Nevertheless, the Union Government at the Centre kept the powers to dismiss any elected government on the `advice’ of the Governor who is anyway the potentate of the Union Government, and to impose Governor’s or President’s Rule on the advice of the Union Cabinet of Ministers. Furthermore, the Union Government could alter the boundaries of any of the states or territories, merge them or parts of them with other states or territories, without too much ado. In addition, power to impose what is de facto martial law and giving the forces involved protection from prosecution for even the most heinous of crimes through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act have been weapons in the armoury of the Centre to bring any rebellious region under its jackboots.
Thus, the history of modern India has been replete with great ruptures. The powers that the Union Government at the Centre has in respect of the States and Territories are indeed tremendous. The federalism that is built into the Indian Constitution makes for a very centralised concentration of powers with the Union Government, with a few provisions incorporated to satisfy regional interests. As we have seen, the latter can be taken away by the Union Government at any time!
Given the scenario above, the changed status of Delhi is an occasion to look at the entire picture of Indian federalism and to ask whether it is in accordance with the most modern traditions in statecraft, or whether it is only a power sharing arrangement that is more in accord with principles of colonial rule. A detailed discussion on this issue in the coming months and years is necessary to pave the way to a truly federal and democratic India.