Sanjaya Baru | In India’s border states, Centre isn’t peripheral

The Asian Age.  | Sanjaya Baru

Opinion, Columnists

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement last week blaming state governments for lapses in ensuring the rule of law, was a bit rich.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI Photo)

Sometime back the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu reminded the national government in New Delhi that according to the Constitution it ought to be referred to as the “Union” government and not as the “Central” government. He was right. India is, after all, “a Union of States”. However, over the years there has been what may be termed as a kind of “governance creep” that has made the Union government central to many areas of governance, ranging from education to agricultural policy.

Law and order, a policy domain of the state government, has witnessed Central government creep for a variety of reasons, ranging from the politicisation of the police force at the state level to the need to manage threats to national security arising out of terrorism and drug-trafficking. White collar crime, including corruption of public servants, has emerged as an important domain in which Central government agencies have had to act to punish those in power in states. This too has been politicised with time, with such agencies acting increasingly at the behest of the Union government.

Against this background, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement last week blaming state governments for lapses in ensuring the rule of law, virtually absolving the Union home ministry of any blame, was a bit rich. It is well known that a law and order problem in a border state can easily acquire a national security dimension and the Union home ministry must remain alert to such a possibility at all times. Not the normal, day-to-day law and order problem that any government anywhere faces, but one that acquires a serious dimension with national security implications.

This simple fact has meant that the Union government in New Delhi has always kept an eye on such challenges to law and order in what are regarded as “sensitive” border states. Which does not just mean Jammu and Kashmir and the states of the Northeast, but could well include at times any border state, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Assam and, indeed, Tamil Nadu. Law and order in border states cannot remain a peripheral concern of the Centre.

When Gujarat was convulsed by communal conflict in 2002, the Central intelligence agencies had warned the political leadership in New Delhi that the incidents in the state may trigger cross-border problems. New Delhi has had to deal many times with challenges to the political authority of state governments in the interests of national security. Therefore, it is irresponsible for the Union government to shrug its shoulders and pretend as if the challenge to the writ of the State in Manipur is just another law and order issue, similar to ones faced in other states.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi treating violence against women in different parts of the country on par with incidents in Manipur was not merely facetious and irresponsible but something not expected from one holding the high office of the head of government. Some members of the ruling side have linked the events in Manipur to foreign interference, with dark hints of a possible China connection, on the one hand, and a Western Christian Church connection, on the other. They have questioned the remarks of the United States ambassador as well as the discussion in the European Parliament.

Be it China, Myanmar or Washington DC, whatever the external inspiration for the violence on the part of one section of Manipur’s citizens, there could be internal inspiration from outside the state egging other sections of society. In what appears like a “civil war”, an ethnic conflict, a pogrom of sorts, violence against women has become an instrument of domination. That has been the nature of human conflict across the world and for centuries.

The unleashing of such violence and deep-seated hatred in a border state requires the attention of the Union government. It cannot be that the Union government allows an ineffective chief minister, who has not just failed to ensure law and order, but has allowed its escalation into ethnic conflict, to remain in office and pretend that the state government will continue to handle the situation. On one hand, the Union government passes an ordinance taking charge of the civil administration in Delhi, on the other hand it pretends that in Manipur there is a state government and so the Centre would not directly take responsibility of governing the state.

The fact is that the Union home ministry has taken charge of the situation in Manipur and the Chief Minister is no more than a puppet in the hands of the Union home minister. This has been the case for a few weeks now. Even if it is the case that the rape incident and the parading of a naked woman, that has so incensed the entire country, occurred before the Union home ministry took charge of Manipur, the fact is that the matter would not have come to light but for a video going viral.

All these facts make it necessary that the Prime Minister and the Union home minister should make a statement in Parliament as to their understanding of the developments in Manipur, of how the state government handled and mishandled the situation and what the Union government proposes to do. This is the minimum parliamentary accountability that is expected of a government. There is no escaping this.

It is true that over the past 70-odd years there has been much misuse of Article 356 of the Constitution, which allows the Union government to impose President’s Rule in a state under certain circumstances, most importantly its inability to discharge its constitutional responsibilities. While there has been misuse of this provision, the fact also remains that on several occasions a Congress Party Prime Minister in New Delhi has not hesitated to dismiss a Congress Party government in a state to ensure return to normalcy in that state.

It is, therefore, incumbent upon the Union government that it not only takes charge of administering Manipur but also explains to Parliament what went wrong, why and who is responsible, holding them