North-East India – Security and Developmental Issues

In Manipur, a case for asymmetric federalism


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Autonomous districts, Sixth Schedule

Mains level: Issues related to Assymetric Federalism in India

As a normative idea and an institutional arrangement that supports the recognition and provision of an expansive ‘self-rule’ for territorially concentrated minority groups, asymmetric federalism has recently received bad press in India.

India’s Federalism: A backgrounder

  • Nations are described as ‘federal’ or ‘unitary’, depending on the way in which governance is organised.
  • In a unitary set-up, the Centre has plenary powers of administration and legislation, with its constituent units having little autonomy.
  • In a federal arrangement, the constituent units are identified on the basis of region or ethnicity and conferred varying forms of autonomy or some level of administrative and legislative powers.
  • In India, the residuary powers of legislation, that is the power to make law in a field not specified in the Constitution, is vested in Parliament.
  • Hence India has a quasi-federal framework.

Why is it said that India has asymmetric federalism?

  • The main forms of administrative units in India are the Centre and the States.
  • Just as the Centre and the States do not have matching powers in all matters, there are some differences in the way some States and other constituent units of the Indian Union relate to the Centre.
  • This creates a notable asymmetry in the way Indian federalism works.
  • But there are other forms, too, all set up to address specific local, historical and geographical contexts.

The asymmetric structure

  • Besides the Centre and the States, the country has Union Territories with a legislature, and Union Territories without a legislature.
  • When the Constitution came into force, the various States and other administrative units were divided into Parts A, B, C and D.
  • Part A States were the erstwhile provinces, while Part B consisted of erstwhile princely states and principalities. Part C areas were the erstwhile ‘Chief Commissioner’s Provinces’.
  • They became Union Territories, and some of them initially got legislatures and were later upgraded into States.
  • Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Tripura, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Goa belong to this category.

Power apparatus in these asymmetries: Sixth Schedule

  • The Sixth Schedule to the Constitution contains provisions for the administration of tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
  • These create autonomous districts and autonomous regions.
  • Any autonomous district with different Scheduled Tribes will be divided into autonomous regions.
  • These will be administered by District Councils and Regional Councils.
  • These Councils can make laws with respect to allotment, occupation and use of land, management of forests other than reserve forests and water courses.
  • Besides they can regulate social customs, marriage and divorce and property issues.

An integrationist approach adopted by the Constituent Assembly

  • Post-independence, India was criticized for arguably becoming a ‘homogenous Hindu nation’ after Partition.
  • To counter this, the Gopinath Bordoloi Committee, a sub-committee of the Constituent Assembly sought to accommodate the distinctive identity, culture and way of life of tribal groups in the NE by envisioning ‘self-rule’.
  • This distinctive constitutional status to territorially concentrated minorities fosters centrifugal tendencies.
  • Asymmetric federalism fosters subversive institutions, political instability and breakup of States.

Curious case of Manipur: Recent developments

  • Article 371 gives expansive constitutional powers to Manipur’s Hill Areas Committee (Article 371C) over tribal identity, culture, development and local administration, are exemplars.
  • The integrationist approach resonates powerfully in two recent attempts by Manipur’s government to
  1. stall the introduction and passage of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council (Amendment) Bill, 2021, and
  2. induct nine Assembly members from the valley areas into the Hill Areas Committee.
  • This move is being perceived as a “malicious” and “direct assault” on the Hill Areas Committee and the constitutional protection accorded to the Hill Areas of Manipur under Article 371C.

A determined move

  • These moves marks a calculated initiative to use this as a double-edged sword to simultaneously set apace electoral agenda for the upcoming Assembly elections in early 2022 and reclaim its agency to fortify state-level constitutional asymmetry.
  • The attempt to increase membership of the six district councils to 31 members each and secure more powers to the councils by giving more developmental mandate are welcome.

Managing HAC: A difficult task

  • If history is any guide, the task of reclaiming the Hill Areas Committee’s agency is not going to be easy.
  • Its members often leverage tribe/party loyalty over-commitment to protect constitutional asymmetry and common tribals’ cause.
  • How the HAC and various tribal groups strategically navigate their politics to offset the majoritarian impulse to manipulate the legal and political process to dilute/dissolve extant constitutional asymmetry remains to be seen.

Way forward

  • There should be sincere commitment to promote tribal development, identity and culture that Article 371C seeks to bridge.
  • Recognizing and institutionally accommodating tribal distinctiveness is not just as a matter of political convenience
  • This valuable and enduring good will be key to promote the State’s integrity, stability and peace in the long run.

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