Article 370 and the fear in Northeast India

It is unknown to many that out of eight states, six states in the Northeast enjoy special provisions under Article 371. Now, the sudden scrapping of Article 370 and reorganization of Jammu & Kashmir has worried leaders of Northeast India due to the possible fear of abrogation of Article 371. Northeast Today discusses various aspects of this fear.

With the scrapping of article 370 and introduction of Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Bill 2019 in early August, India has moved on to a new political era. This is a crucial political moment where Jammu & Kashmir (J &K) no longer continue to have special provisions as a state. It shall now be administered as a functioning union territory without Ladakh. Ladakh too, was carved out of Jammu & Kashmir and made a Union Territory. The abrogation of J &K’s special status has received mixed reactions across the country and beyond borders. While the majority of Indians think this act to be a bold step of the Modi Government to integrate Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian mainstream, for Kashmiri leaders and activists it is a dire loss of their special identity, one that has been painstakingly preserved for long.

Following this major decision, leaders from Ladakh expressed their happiness as this has created a separate identity and entity for them. Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, the Member of Parliament from Ladakh stated, “The decision of the Union government to revoke Article 370 is a historic step under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rectify the blunder that was created by the Congress leaders. Now the future of Kashmir, Ladakh and the nation is very bright”. Further, the MP stated that Congress Govt. is responsible for the under development of Ladakh, its political aspiration, identity and language.

Interestingly, while reaction at national level is mixed and polar opposites, this bold political step has created fear in many from Northeast India in terms of their political future. Many Northeastern States, particularly Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam have come with sharp reactions. Indeed, there is valid reason for them to worry. Some states and communities of Northeast India enjoy special constitutional safeguards like Jammu and Kashmir through which their unique identities and various constitutional rights are protected. With Jammu & Kashmir losing its special status, there is a sense of fear among various states and autonomous bodies of Northeast India, which are protected via various constitutional mechanisms. Many from the political front are afraid that the Union Government, which have absolute majority can change the political identity of the region at will. What happened in Jammu and Kashmir is exactly the opposite that has been demanded by many Civil Society Organizations from Northeast India.

The background

The region that we call Northeast India is an official category (officially North Eastern Region, NER), rather than a historical category. Though at present eight states (Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura) are part of this category, traditionally it was seven states. Sikkim is a new addition to North East and yet to find its place in the minds of old Northeast India. Sikkim became part of the North Eastern Council state in 2002. The kind of reorganization that we have observed in the case of Jammu & Kashmir was seen in Northeast region long back, though it was mostly opposite. The present states of Manipur and Tripura were princely states during the colonial period as J & K. Tripura acceded to the Indian Union on 15 October, 1949 as a “C” category state and became a Union Territory in November 1956. Tripura also attained full statehood on January 21, 1972. On the other hand, Manipur was made a union territory in the year 1956 after its merge into the Indian domain in October, 1949. Manipur became a full-fledged state in 1972. On the other hand, states of Nagaland (1963), Meghalaya (1972), Arunachal Pradesh (1975) and Mizoram (1987) were formed out of territory of Assam. Both Nagaland and Mizoram went through long bloody armed struggles with the Indian state prior to their formation.

The most common thing in this region is that the idea of ethnic autonomy and homelands is extremely popular for which the region has seen bloodshed in the past. The region has a troubled past as most of the autonomy movements were carried out or supported by the Insurgency groups. The social history of movements for self-determination in the Northeast is also a parallel history of insurgency in Northeast India. In most of the cases, political autonomy in the region had been achieved through armed struggles only. A good number of insurgency groups including United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) are still active in the region.

One Article, Multiple fears

As stated earlier, the abrogation of Article 370 has created a kind of political fear in Northeast India and some of prominent leaders of the region have expressed their fear openly. It is actually not Article 370, but Article 371(A-J) which has worried many in the region. It should be noted here that Article 371 was a part of the constitution at the time of its commencement on January 26, 1950, along with Article 370. To understand this fear, we need to discuss a little bit about Article 371(A-J) of the constitution of India.

Very few people know that out of eight states, six states in the Northeast enjoy special provisions under Article 371. Now, the sudden scrapping of Article 370 has worried leaders of the region due to the possible fear of abrogation of Article 371. Northeastern States of Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh enjoy some special constitution protections and provisions under this Article, which has been amended from time to time to adjust with the region’s administrative requirements. It has to be remembered that, this special provision is not only limited to the states of Northeast India. Other Indian states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Karnataka too enjoy special provisions under this Article. The main objective of Article 371 is to grant special provisions to some of the backward states to meet their unique needs as a backward region, protect their economic and cultural interests to combat local challenges and protect their customary laws. In Northeast India Article 371A, 371B, 371C, 371F, 371G and 371H are in effect at the present.

371 and the Northeastern States:

Nagaland: Article 371A, which is enjoyed by Nagaland is empowering when it comes to indigenous rights. This article was granted to the state of Nagaland as a partial fulfillment of the 1960 agreement between the Indian union and Naga People Convention (NPC), that later created the Statehood in 1963. This Article states that no act of Parliament would apply to the state of Nagaland in matters relating to religious or social practices of the Nagas, their customary law and procedure, administration of civil or criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law. In this regard, not only the customary law, social practice and beliefs of the people of Nagaland but also the resources of the state is verdantly remain safeguarded from the intervention of the union government and its various policies unless the State Assembly so decides by resolution.

Assam: Article 371B is the special provision for Assam. Under this Article, the President of India may provide for the Constitution and functions of a committee of Legislative Assembly of the state consisting of members elected from the tribal areas of Assam. These tribal areas specified in Part I of the table appended to paragraph 20 of the Sixth Schedule and such number of other members of that Assembly as may be specified in the order and for the modifications to be made in the rules of procedure of that Assembly for the constitution and proper functioning of such committee. Article 371B was inserted in the constitution during the twenty-second Amendment of the Constitution of India, officially known as The Constitution (Twenty-second Amendment) Act, 1969. One of the purposes of this amendment was to insert Article 244A to empower parliament to enact a law for constituting an autonomous State within the State of Assam. It also provides for the autonomous State with Legislature or a Council of Ministers or both with such powers and functions as may be defined by that law. Article 371B actually disintegrated Assam as it facilitated the creation of the Meghalaya.

Manipur: The special provision under Article 371C in the case of Manipur is similar to 371B for Assam. Here too, the president may provide for the Constitution and functions of a committee of Legislative Assembly of the state, but consisting of members elected from the hill areas of Manipur. The governor must submit an annual report to the president regarding the administration of hill areas as well.
However, many argue that this Article is biased and harmful towards the Manipuris and tends to encourage disunity among the people of Manipur in the name of the hill and valley and in the name of scheduled tribe and general caste.

Sikkim: Article 371F was incorporated into the Constitution in 1975 to provide special provision to Sikkim. It states that the Legislative Assembly shall consist of not less than 30 members. Seats in the assembly are provided to people of these different sections in order to protect the rights and interests of the different sections of the people like Bhutias and Lepchas in the state of Sikkim. For instance, there is reservation of seats in the State Legislature for the Bhutia and Lepcha communities. This benefit is provided to the Bhutia and Lepcha Community as a political arrangement and protected under Article 371F.

Mizoram: The Provision of Article 371G came into effect in 1986 following the signing of the historic Mizo Accord between the Centre and the erstwhile underground Mizo National Front (MNF). Mizoram, then a Union territory, was granted the status of full-fledged statehood on February 20, 1987. According to this Article, The Legislative Assembly of the state of Mizoram must consist of not less than 40 members. In addition, following the same provisions as Nagaland, an act of Parliament would not apply to Mizoram in matters relating to religious or social practices of Mizo, Mizo customary law and procedure, administration of civil or criminal justice involving decisions according to Mizo customary law, ownership and transfer of land and its resources.

Arunachal Pradesh:
Article 371H is the special constitutional provision for Arunachal State. Under this constitutional provision, Governor of Arunachal Pradesh shall have special responsibility with respect to law and order in the State. This Article makes the Governor very powerful as his/her discretion is final, and the validity of anything done by the Governor shall not be called in question on the ground that he ought or ought not to have acted in the exercise of his individual judgment. On the other hand, if the President on receipt of a report from the Governor or otherwise is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the Governor to have special responsibility with respect to law and order in the State of Arunachal Pradesh, he may by order direct that the Governor shall cease to have such responsibility.

Reaction

As a reaction to the abrogation of 370 Lallianchhunga, an assistant professor of the political science department in the Mizoram University, stated in the press that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government had been violating the federal spirits of the Constitution and moving towards a “unitary government”. He further commented that the Centre, in the name of economic development and internal security, may soon target the north-eastern states with special provisions and statuses. Riachho, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, also said that the Centre did not honour the Instrument of Accession signed on October 26, 1947, by Maharaja Hari Singh, the then ruler of Jammu and Kashmir. He also feared that the Article 371 G in Mizoram might come under danger. Political party People’s Representation for Identity and Status of Mizoram (PRISM) also condemned the Centre’s move, saying the “north-eastern states were no longer safe in the hands of the NDA government”.

Sharp reactions also came from Nagaland. Achumbemo Kikon, spokesperson of the opposition Naga People’s Front (NPF), stated “As an Opposition party, we are confident that the central government will not dare to take the Jammu and Kashmir path in Nagaland, lest the sentiments of Naga people are hurt and the consequences would be severe”. Echoing the same sentiment, ruling Nationalist Democratic Progress Party spokesperson Merentoshi R Jamir said, “We are apprehensive, but with the talks for settlement of the Naga political issue still on, we hope that the Centre will not make any such move (to abrogate Art 371A).”

There have been a mixed responses in the state of Assam. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal addressed that, the 73rd Independence Day is special for every citizen of the country as it comes at a time when the entire nation is cherishing the fulfillment of a long-standing dream of Jammu and Kashmir’s complete amalgamation with India. He added further, “India will celebrate the Independence Day with much fanfare this year with the abrogation of the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 (of the Constitution).”

On the other hand, while talking about the abrogation of 370, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) president and RTI activist Akhil Gogoi said that the day is “one of the darkest days of Indian democracy”. He told PTI further, “We strongly condemn the government decision on J&K and the move to terrorise the people of the State by mobilising a huge number of security forces there. By this move, the constitutional safeguards that the State was enjoying till now have been withdrawn”.

Conclusion

Despite the fear and confusion among a section of Northeast India, the Union Government and some other political leaders from Northeast Indian categorically assured that the special provisions which have been enjoyed by the six Northeastern States won’t be compromised. The Union Minister of State for Development of the North Eastern Region, Jitendra Singh has rejected the fears of Article 371 of the Constitution being the next in line to be scrapped after the Modi government’s move on Article 370. Singh said on August 9 in Shillong that the just-abrogated Article 370, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, was detrimental and has absolutely no correlation with Article 371, which gives certain special rights to some places in the northeast. He further stated, “While Article 371, was incorporated primarily with a focus on development of the northeastern region and preservation of the cultural heritage, Article 370 was incorporated as a ‘temporary’ provision and deprived the state of Jammu and Kashmir of a large number of welfare laws and provisions of the Indian Constitution which could otherwise be in the interest of the people.

The fears about Article 371 were also allayed by Home Minister Amit Shah who moved the resolution to scrap Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir. Making it clear that there was no comparison between Article 370 and Article 371, Amit Shah said by drawing a comparison between the two, attempt was being made to mislead country and public. He also said there was no intention of the government to remove Article 371, which gives certain special rights to some Northeastern states.

Rejecting such speculations, RN Ravi, the newly appointed governor of Nagaland, on August 6th, assured that the Centre will not revoke Article 371(A) from the state. He stated, “Dear brothers, sisters and children of Nagaland. Some people have expressed apprehensions over the implications of development in Jammu and Kashmir on Nagaland. I would like to categorically assure you all that you don’t have to worry at all. Art 371A is a solemn commitment to the People of Nagaland. It is a sacred commitment.”

Echoing same positive vibes, , Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu allayed fears of revocation of the special provisions of Article 371H while addressing the public on the eve of the Independence day. He said, “I assure the people of my state that the provisions of Article 371-H will continue to stay in force and the same had been categorically assured in the Parliament by the Centre”. He further stated that the provisions of Article 371 are inclusive in nature, but that of Article 370 are primarily divisive. The government has taken the first step towards the inclusive development of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Situation in J & K and Northeast India is different and the Northeast has a unique social history of identity politics and movements for self determination which can’t be compared to any other parts of India. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that the Article 371 which provides special provision to six Northeastern states won’t be touched in the near future. The Northeast has reached its present political stability (despite many flaws) only through 371. Any changes in Article 371 with regard to the Northeastern states, may bring political instability to the region which the Union Govt. may not be able to handle.