April 20, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

Neighborhood Nationalism

The political impulse to derive advantage from routine events is evidently quite powerful, turning even overt allies to occasional confrontation. In the citadel of cosmopolitan India on an otherwise unremarkable visit, the prime minister no doubt recalled this enduring truth. Bal Thackeray, an awkward partner and an old adversary, fired the familiar barbs long associated with his political organization, raising once again the specter of compartmentalization.

The Shiv Sena's claim to a distinct identity within the rising tide of cultural assertiveness has unwaveringly rested on the rhetoric of Marathi sub-nationalism. Maharashtra for the Marathis, by force if necessary. There is little that is novel in Thackeray's latest fulmination, his penchant to play a shallow Shivaji having been widely recorded over the years. Nonetheless, there is now some additional context in which to consider his continuing tirade.

The Census of India 2001 began publishing preliminary results from the month-long head count carried out in February this year. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, population growth continues to remain out of all proportion to the successes elsewhere in the nation, with the first two of those states now counting a quarter of the nation's population between them, more than all but three nations, India included! This, despite the truncation of both to create the new states of Uttaranchal and Jharkhand. More to our discussion here, however, is that leap-frogging Bihar, Maharashtra now ranks as the nation's second-most populous administrative unit, with 96 million Indians calling the western state home.

Numbers alone do not tell the story, certainly. Sprawling Maharashtra is more than thrice the size of Bihar, and aside from Mumbai's incredible crowding, is average by Indian standards. The more intriguing aspect of population growth in the state, however, comes from looking at these figures in light of changes in neighboring states. Approximately 60 per cent of its borders are with states whose populations grew less than 20 per cent during the decade -- the weighted-average growth rate in Karnataka, Goa, Andhra and Chhattisgarh was 16 per cent. Nonetheless, during the same period, the Maharashtrian population grew nearly 22.5 per cent.

The district-wise breakdown of the numbers will present a more complete picture, and detailed conclusions must await their publication. From the little evidence at hand, we can only observe that Maharashtra is growing at a noticeably higher rate than its southern and eastern neighbors, although roughly in step with Gujarat, which borders the much faster growing states of Rajasthan and MP. Moreover, the sex-ratio, usually exacerbated by the migration of males seeking urban employment -- evident from the numbers in Delhi and Chandigarh -- dropped a further twenty points during the 1990s.

Perhaps some states, particularly ones whose boundaries contain metropolitan cities and their relatively robust economies, bear the unwelcome burden of runaway population growth elsewhere in the nation. It is conceivable, however, that even without disparities in the effectiveness of population programs, the prosperous states will likely attract immigrants. To some degree, cooperation between the states within the federal framework requires acknowledging this. The question is -- how?

Unlike Mumbai, which many desire to reach and inhabit, Meghalaya is mostly an imagined place, where the majority of "mainland" Indians will likely never set foot, and a far cry from our urban melting pots. In some respects, however, citizens of the northeastern hills grapple with similar concerns. The latest census figures, as in previous decades, show that the northeastern states are experiencing the highest percentage growth in populations, and Meghalaya is no exception; during the 1990s, the population of the state grew 30 per cent.

As in Maharashtra, this is almost certainly in part from immigration. And the knee-jerk political reaction to influx has begun. Rediff recently carried this article on legislation that is proposed in the Meghalaya state assembly. Nitin Gogoi's report referred to Public Relations Minister Scott Lyngdoh's announcement that under the proposed amendment, only tribes native to Meghalaya will be permitted to purchase and sell land in the state henceforth. This legislation, adding to existing laws against non-tribal ownership of land, effectively declares Meghalaya the exclusive domain of the tribals specifically identified by the state as "native".

Mumbai for the Marathis, Meghalaya for the Khasis, Bangalore for the Kannadigas, Guwahati for the Assamese. The myopia of neighborhood nationalism is incredible, but dangerously real as well.

Admittedly, it must seem reasonable that when a state government enacts administrative and other standards, it first attends to the concerns of its citizens. Further, the first beneficiaries of efficient administration and good policy must be those who have put the right administrators in office. But that is not all of it. If the Thackerays and Lyngdohs contend only that the primary rewards of their policies should accrue to the residents of their states, that is entirely permissible. It is in seeking to separate residents from one another on arbitrary bases that their political gimmicks fall afoul of the laws.

The Constitution of India does permit the classification of individuals on many grounds, and a constituent class of recipients of government largesse is fairly routine. Nonetheless, the state may not simply conjure up a basis for differentiation. In The State of West Bengal vs. Anwar Ali Sarkar [SC 1952], the criteria for a valid classification were definitively stated. The classification, it was held, must be based on an intelligent differentia which distinguishes persons or things grouped together from others left out of the group. Additionally, the differentia must have a rational relation to the object sought to be achieved.

Does the identification of some residents as more native than others meet these guidelines? Are ethnic southerners born and raised in Mumbai lesser citizens than those of Marathi ancestry? In what substantial sense is a Naga tribal in Shillong to be considered different from his Khasi neighbors?

In Article 14, the Constitution confers to all citizens the fundamental right to equal protection of the laws. Specifically, the courts have interpreted this to mean that persons who are in substantially similar circumstances may not be treated differently from one another, but left open the possibility that those citizens whose circumstances are significantly different may be treated non-uniformly. This means that without a valid classification, the state is prohibited (in Article 13) from enacting "legislation which takes away or abridges the [fundamental] rights ... and any law made in contravention of this ... shall be void".

Within the framework of these laws, states have often made several classifications. For example, the proper exercise of state authority over certain professionals such as lawyers and doctors, must necessarily separate them from others. The Constitution also allows the identification of economically and socially backward groups for various purposes, within the overall intention to advance their status. The legislation proposed in Meghalaya, however, meets no such standard. Instead, it seeks to classify one set of tribals as more native than others, with the explicit intent of maintaining a preferred demographic balance through incentives and disincentives to property ownership, a dangerous precedent if applied to ethnic and religious groups across the country.

That this effort is presented as a noble intention toward the majority tribes of the state is shameful; a republican government doesn't merely affirm the will of the majority, it must additionally protect those of minorities as well. Laws directed against the interests of certain citizens and in favor of others de-legitimize the right of the former to reside without restraint within the territory of the nation, another right granted by the constitution. The restraint on the sale or purchase of property by those identified as "outsiders" dilutes the value of their holdings, clearly imposing an uncompensated economic burden. These foreseeable consequences should suggest that although couched in the language of promoting the welfare of "true" natives, the political impetus towards ethnic differentiation is an invitation to implosion.

The legislation proposed by the Meghalaya government is the codification of the strident separateness that chest-beating ethnic sub-nationalists like Thackeray have declared repeatedly. Clearly, this is perverse to an integrated state, and more likely than not, unconstitutional. The Central government's responsibility to preserve a robust Union requires a strong response -- an insistence that there be one standard by which a person is considered native to any state, namely that s/he is a citizen of India and is normally resident in that state.

For too long, this principal charge of the Union government has fallen victim to the politics of identity. National parties in India are mostly an amalgam of regional sops to different communities, with no coherent social or political ideology that is upheld by members uniformly. This is mostly motivated by the desire to gain power, however limited, whenever and wherever possible, and has sometimes produced odd mixes, with rivalries at the regional level and partnership at the national level, or vice-versa. Further, vote-bank politics, which associates membership in certain castes and religions with political leanings, is not easily translated across communities.

The unexamined consequence of such opportunism has been that no uniform social vision of India is ever an issue at the ballot-box. The national parties -- first the Congress and now the BJP -- are unable or unwilling to articulate an idea of India that is truly inclusive, notwithstanding hundreds of public statements professing it. Such an idea, however, is vigorously expressed in the laws of the land, and in the founding document. An affirmation of the rights granted to the citizenry presents an immediate -- and proper -- platform for nation-wide acceptance. That no political organization now finds value in the breadth of the constitutional guarantees speaks poorly of the Union.

Too often, we witness only feeble attempts to repulse the rhetoric of prominent sub-nationalists, and even then for political advantage only, not as ideological opposition. This has made us accustomed to the headlines, rather than the news. We are more vigilant about Thackeray's potential for strife, and uncertain of our response to the Lyngdohs. In a society of laws, however, the precedent-setting nature of changes that occur away from the spotlight cannot be exaggerated. In time, the differentiated society now sought to be created in Shillong may be visited upon more of us; to await such calamity is foolhardy. It is terrible enough that a fragmented society appeals to politicians of myriad stripes around the nation; to affirm this in law will further erode inter-community relations.

No matter how removed from our immediate lives, ethnicity and its ruinous divisions must not find favor with legislators. Indeed, the very purpose of law amidst such splendid diversity is to ensure this.

Related Link
Census of India

Ashwin Mahesh

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