July- September, 1999 , Volume 1  No. 1

Pluralism, Globalism, and Pattern of sharing of rights and responsibilities with particular reference to Assam and the federal polity of India..

B.K. Roy Burman

Pluralism marks the Indian situation in almost every sphere of life. Multiculturalism in terms of language, religion, food habit, dress, ways of life at almost all levels constitute only one aspect of India’s pluralism. With the visible indication of the totalitarian caste system being in the process of disintegration, many castes, subcastes, incipient castes, particularly those which had been subjected to oppression and exploitation for centuries, are now emerging as distinct entities. The hierarical social structure is now becoming a segmented social structure, though the world-view of hierarchy has not been completely eradicated. This adds a new dimension to India’s pluralism. Ethnic dimension apart, there is the territorial dimension, there is also a dimension centering the perception of peoples of their historically embedded relations with resources in terms of access to, control and management of the same. The territorial dimension has two aspects. One is disparity in the levels of living, the other is a more complex one just as India, notwithstanding diversities has a feel of over-arching unity through the interface of various forces. There are regions which contain within their ambit diversities, but which have over-arching sense of unity. North East India is one such region. Assam while is a State in the Union of States of India is one such sub-region.

  1. In the contemporary world criss-cross reference frames and structures of pluralism are becoming increasingly conscious of their identity, of their commitment to the appropriate respect for the same, to the raising of their levels at par with the those of other entities in the same realms of existence. Any polity-federal, quasi-federal or unitary, cannot ignore this emerging human reality.

  2. Federal State or Constituent State is not however a completely free operator in matters within its jurisdiction in the contemporary world. There are basically two types of intervening forces. One is ethical dimension interlaced with power dimension, the other is neocolonial dimension with the so-called market force as the cover-up. The ethical dimension is being projected through the Human Rights instruments at the national and international levels, like the Preamble to the Constitution, Fundamental Rights and Directive principles of State Policy and so on. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UNESCO Convention against Racial Discrimination, the UN Convention, on Rights of Minorities, of Migrant Labour, of Refugees, of Women, of Children, and so on. India has ratified most of these Coventants and Conventions and hence these are enforcible even through International forums. Recent intervention of NATO in Kosovo of Yugoslavia in a questionable manner on the plea of prevention of ethnocide is an illustration. Though these covenants and conventions draw their legitimacy from stated or unstated ethical grounds, these are also underpinned by power dimension, which may not be always exercised in a correct manner or in an appropriate context.

    The major players in promoting neocolonial dimension with so-called market force as the cover-up are the Bretton Wood’s Twin, the multinational, transnational and even national level corporate enterprises. Most of the under-privileged states, federal or otherwise, either do not have the capacity or the "will" to resist the intervention of the neocolonial forces. The ruling elites of these States more frequently tend to play comprador role to international hegemons. In such cases neocolonialism and internal colonialsim tend to tie up. Where such process takes place, regional compradors, and local compradors sprout up in myriads like mushrooms. The relation between globalisation and liberalisation is a complex one. Without going into the intricacies of the same, in a general way it can be stated that there is something like a egg-chicken relation between the two.

  3. In an analytical appraisal of what have been stated in the foregoing paras it can be stated that in the short run, pluralism serves as a centrifugal force in a federal polity and globalisation and liberalisation serve as a centripetal force. But in the long run if the ethical dimension of economic, ecological, social, cultural, civil and political rights and responsibilities at every level are taken care of, with purdence and with understanding of historical constraints and imperatives, the same will strengthen each of the constituents of the federal polity and federal polity as a whole and each of these will be a rampart against the intrusion of the forces of neo-colonialism. Similarly if the forces of capitalist globalisation and libralisation are allowed their free play, not only the federal polity will be disrupted, but even the constituent territorial and non-territorial entities will suffer anomie and erosion of their existential core, paving the way for a homogenised hegemonic world order in the long run. This will mean humanity and humanism under eclipse. There could also be globalisation and liberalisation of a different order. There could be for instance emphasis on eco-friendly development of solar energy, rather that an eco-polluting nuclear energy. The former would have made equitable availability of energy and an egalitarian global coordination system possible, whereas emphasis on nuclear energy has reinforced the process of centralisation of both economic and political power and almost complete cooption of science and technology by military establishments. One can provide many more illustrations, but it is not necessary.

  4. The question of sharing of rights and responsibilities among federal, state and other organised entities is proposed to be discussed with the overall scenario delineated here as the backdrop. Before that, the concept of federalism and a comparative picture of the trends in several federal polities will be briefly touched upon.

  5. "Federalism as a form of political power sharing in democratic societies has been generally identified as a reconciliation of national unity and power with the maintenance of states' rights". "As a subject of democracy federalism derives its sustenance from the concepts of ‘power’ and ‘people’. As ‘power’ in itself involves conflict, the base of a federal polity is expected to be a general consensus. Since consensus is circumscribed by a common value system, the consensus paradigm can only be an ideal type, and its inadequacy in the actual world of politics is revealed by the use of force, the amount of which is determined by the exigency of circumstances. Thus the constant balancing between the compulsions of power and aspirations of people becomes an inalienable part of contemporary discussions on federalism (Azam 1998 P262) A quick comparison of the processes and functioning of several federal polities will give an idea of the extent of success of the balancing strategy as indicated and the directions in which the federal polities are moving.

  6. Pagano and Sheila Croucher after examining the federal polity of USA since its inception conclude that "the third century of federalism in US has opened like the first century with endless debates on appropriate balance of power between the federal government, the states and the local government" (1998p6). There are however studies which indicate that in the context of US playing a highly dominant role in the world political order, centralising tendencies are gaining ground there. On the other hand, studies suggest that a reverse trend is taking place in Canada. Apart from Quebecois nationalism, American influence and market rationality has reduced the utility of federalism in that Country. But Quebecois separatism has been held back because of the inability of the Quebecois nationalism to accommodate the aspirations of the indigenous Ameri-Indian peoples. In post-soviet federal state, Russia is groping for an alternative state model for its 89 territorial units. Ethnic nationalism has emerged as a potential factor that dominates state polities. It tears as-under the federal and multi-ethnic fabric of an evolving popity and "threatens to sever the cohesion among the various ethnic groups. Even territorial nationalism opens up ethno-cultural and demographic consideration".

  7. Federalism in Malaysia has a different story to tell. Ethinic, Political mobilisation and contestation is the dominant mode of politics; but it is not directed to fighting for States’ right in the Country, as ethnic plurality does not have much territorial correlates except in a few areas. Federal ruling coalition has played an active role in balancing the diverse interests.

  8. The comparative contours of federalism in the different countries as provided here indicate that there is hardly anything called "true federalism". It is a process of "historical evolution" in a given polity. Elazar (1998p3) while discussing post-modern federal forms traces the salience of federalism to the fear of tyranny of the majority, budgetary and market forces, externalities and informational asymmetries. He concludes that neither the global trends nor the insulating instincts will go away and the issue in federalism in the next century will not be too different from those in the 20th Century. In India "shifting style of interface between nationalism, subnationalism and sub-subnationalism will continue". One has to grasp the dialectical nature of such relations and also relations in the same way between the country, the regions and sub-regions. There is however a fundamental difference between the pressures and federal pulls in India and in a western country like USA. In the latter it more relates to administrative rationality or the division of power, allocation of resources and so on. In India as Kumar (1998p9) observes slogans for homeland, self-respect, autonomy have a greater impact.

  9. India as a Federation
    Pluralism in India as the basic federating pressure has already been mentioned. Indian              Constitution is basically federal in form and is marked by traditional characteristics of a federal system, namely, supremacy of the Constitution, division of power between the Union and the State Governments, existence of an independent judiciary and a rigid procedure for amendment of the constitution. It establishes a dual polity, with clearly defined spheres of authority between the Union and the States, to be exercised in fields assigned to them respectively. There is an independent judiciary to determine between the Union and the States or between one state and another. An amendment in the respective jurisdiction of the Union and the States can be brought about only by invoking a special procedure in parliament and ratification by majority of the States. However, Indian Constitution exhibits a centralising tendency in several of its provision e.g. adoption of a lengthy concurrent list, the power of the Parliament to reorganise the political structure of the Country, supremacy of the Parliament over the State Legislatures if there is a direct conflict between their respective jurisdictions, vesting of the residuary legislative power in the Parliament, and power of the Governor to reserve Bills for the consideration of the President of the Republic. Besides in certain circumstances the Union is empowered to supercede the authority of the State or to exercise powers otherwise vested in the States. (Bakshi 1996).

    In recent decades the centralising tendency has been intensified through financial control of centrally sponsored schemes, and through providing operational guidelines in terms of seemingly technical rationality. Growing ecological concern has also enhanced the interventional scope of the Union.

  10. Position of Assam as a constituent entity in the Indian federal polity
    Assam is a mosaic of diverse ethnoses and socio-ethnic entites with diverse histories and historical linkages of their own, some of which go beyond the boundaries of the State within India, some going beyond the borders of India even.

    In Assam, the Assamese constitute the single majority ethnos (with a number of subethnoses with variant degrees of proclivity to assert distinct identity), but the Assamese people do not constitute the majority of the total population of the State.There are centrifugal tendencies operating in Assam, some of the centrifugal tendencies spill over the boundary of Indian federation also.

    It is no secret that in the 1950s the political elite of Assam was expected to serve as the binding force to hold together the various ethno-cultural entities. But a showdown particularly on the language policy in 1960, was a major knock on the possibility. At the same time the political elite at the All India level, made certain moves, perhaps on geopolitical consideration, like initial reluctance to locate the refinery in Assam though the raw material was drawn from Assam shocked the emerging middle class of the State. The geo-political consideration however had hardly any justification, as in the contemporary world one cannot defend a territory without enhancing the quality of life of the concerned people.

    Though the capacity of the political elite to serve as binding force among the diverse ethnoes within Assam has taken a serious knock, it would be a mistake to think that centrifugal tendencies within the State can be appropriately dealt with, without their active involvement. It is also to be noted that notwithstanding diversities North-East India as a whole is perceived as a geo-political region not only because of locational factor but also because of historical reasons. In this geo-political region Assam has a crucial role to play. Particularly, in the context of liberalisation and globalisation alluded to earlier.By and large communitarian values, overt and in many cases covert, relating to land and other resources holding and sharing system, prevail in most parts of the hills of North-East India and such values, if not such institutional structures exist even in the plains of Assam.

  11. Barricade against forces of neo-colonialism
    These are values which can provide historical-axiological barricades against the forces of neo-colonialism intruding from outside. Again, if not rightly handled the institutional structures can be hijacked by the neo-colonial forces. There are not many socially defined sectors in the rest of the country which can grasp the significance of these finer nuances in the roles that the different social forces in North East India can play in the emerging world situation. The failure of the political and technical and administrative elites to grasp the implications of various moves and initiative emanating primarily from outside the region is reflected in the former Prime Minister Deve Gowda’s package for North East India and the follow up report of the Commission headed by S.P.Shukla. Massive investment for creation of infrastructure is envisaged. But it is understood that the ambiguities in respect of property relations in the Hills which will be affected in the process of creation of the infrastructure, the magnitude of migrant labour which will be inducted during the construction phase of the infra-structure and the social tension that will ensue, the environmental hazards that will be created and similar other issues were not seriously examined.

  12. Role of intellegentsia as a social category
    While the core role in accelarating the process of developing North-East India as a economic region with the communitarian value and age-old eco-consciousness and eco-prudence, rather than profit maximising so called market forces being the driving force, is to be played mainly by the political and intellectual elites of Assam and other States of the region. It must also be said that particularly the intellegentsia as a social category has not played its role with requisite vigour. Many distortions have taken place in the resource mobilisation process; many myths have been circulated against the ecoprudence of the peoples, many interventions have taken place which smack of cultural imperialism but the intelligentsia have not responded adequately. Also the intelligentsia have not addressed themselves sufficiently to the problem of creating appropriate institutional framework in harmony with the historical perception and defacto functioning of the property relations in many parts of the region; the intelligentsia have to a considerable extent performed like shuttle cocks in responding to the problems of inter-ethnic relations. Unless a resilient responsive intelligentsia come up to play their expected role, Assam may be vested with more power in the federal polity of India, but Assam will not be able to transcend many constrants haunting it. Some amount of transcendance, not in the mystical sense, but in historical dialectical sense, is needed.

(Outline of talk at the Seminar on True Federalism and more power to Assam held on 21st May, 1999 at Guwahati)

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati