MARDC’s autonomy demand and its likely international ramifications

[ Nani Bath ]

But for two politically significant ingredients, the demand for autonomy under Sixth Schedule of the constitution by Mon Autonomous Region Demand Committee (MARDC) would have normally passed unnoticed. First, official involvement of Nob Tsering (considered No 3 in the informal power hierarchy. Many would say he is actually No 2, a spot higher than Chowna Mein, the deputy chief minister). Second is that the MARDC, headed by elected representatives, decides to boycott panchayat elections, a constitutional requirement, if their demand remains unfulfilled.

Before we discuss the ‘political’ and ‘international’ parts of the demand, let’s put the issue in perspective and clear some misconceptions about autonomy and autonomous council. Misconceptions are basically created by those who depend on Goggle search platform or Wikipedia. There are different categories of autonomous councils. One, autonomous councils created independently by the state government outside the framework of the Sixth Schedule. These councils with no constitutional sanctions are usually created to resolve conflicts or demand for creation of union territory (UT) or statehood. Two, the councils, placed under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution, are vested with such powers which cannot be interfered with by the state government.

Assam has six statutory autonomous councils (by the state’s law) constituted for the plain tribal communities (Rabha, Mising, Tiwa, Deori, Sonowal Kachari and Thengal Kachari). In 1971, when Manipur was still a UT, the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act was promulgated in the parliament with an aim to safeguard the hill areas and protect tribal communities in the hills. As per the act, six autonomous district councils were constituted for the districts of Churachandpur, Chandel, Senapati, Sadar Hills, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.

Under the State Act, two autonomous councils have been created outside India’s Northeast. The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) came into being in 1988, later replaced by the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in 2012. The Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, extending to the whole of districts of Leh and Kargil in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, was formed in 1995.

The Fifth Schedule of the constitution relates to the provisions for the administration and control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Rajasthan.

The basic aim of the Sixth Schedule to the constitution was to provide a distinct political and administrative structure for the hill areas of Northeast India, so that the tribal communities, lacking outside exposure and having little political consciousness, are not exploited by the more advanced neighbouring people of the plains. Besides, it was a constitutional mechanism fine-tuned to balance the desire of the tribal communities for more ‘political space’ with ‘self-autonomy’ and Assam’s stand against such demands.

Originally, the Sixth Schedule was designed to protect hill tribals like the Nagas, Mizos, Khasis, Garos, Jaintias, Mikirs (Karbis), Dimasas, and various communities of the then North East Frontier Tract (Arunachal Pradesh). At present, the Sixth Schedule areas include Assam (North Cachar (Dima Hasao) Hills District, Karbi Anglong District, and Bodoland Territorial Areas District); Meghalaya (Khasi Hills District, Jaintia Hills District, and Garo Hills District); Mizoram (Chakma District, Mara District, and Lai District); and Tripura (Tripura Tribal Areas District).

When the constitution of India came into force, all the hill areas (including the North-East Frontier Tract) were simply designated as ‘Tribal Areas’. The areas under the North-East Frontier Tract were included in Table B under paragraph 20 of the Sixth Schedule to the constitution. However, provisions of the Sixth Schedule were never extended to the territory. Paragraph 18 of the Sixth Schedule empowers the governor of Assam to administer the area as the agent of the president.

The UT of Arunachal Pradesh was formed in 1972 (by Section 7 of the North Eastern Areas Reorganization Act, 1971), and it ceased to be a tribal area within the state of Assam. Thereafter, the provisions of the Sixth Schedule also ceased to be applicable to Arunachal Pradesh.

Why did the MARDC move towards its demand at this point in time? It is a difficult time when citizens are reeling under a stressful situation because of Covid-19.

One among the many possibilities is a possibility of “formation of a pan-Naga cultural body and an autonomous council for the Nagas, one each in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh”. When the government of India agrees to extend the provisions of the Sixth Schedule, as a part of its ‘final agreement’ with the Naga undergrounds, it would be easier for the leaders of the MARDC to demand similar concession for the Mon region.

All may not remember what happened in July 1986 in the Sumdorong Chu valley. Chinese had intruded into Indian territory and constructed a helipad in the area. ‘Operation Falcon’ was launched by sending an entire brigade into Zeimithang by General K Sunderji (Indian Army chief), who thought “it was time for India to show its teeth” and show the Chinese that “it is not 1962.” The Chinese retreated, and a sort of bonhomie started between India and China.

A year later, in 1987, Arunachal Pradesh was granted statehood, which attracted sharp reactions from both China and the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union. China condemned India for “violating Chinese territorial sovereignty” and “gravely injuring feelings of the Chinese people.” The AAPSU was not in favour of statehood until Arunachal had attained a “desired level of political and economic development.”

The MARDC leaders may have been advised that the developments in the Chu valley in 1986 and in the Galwan valley in 2020 are similar. As such, there is a higher possibility of receiving Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s go-ahead signal to grant autonomous status to the Mon region in order to irritate China or “teach China a lesson.” Given the time and intensity of the demand, we would not be surprised if the ‘signal’ was already given to Pema Khandu or Kiren Rijiju.

In the last (2019) general elections, all opponents of Pema Khandu and Kiren Rijiju were neutralized. This is particularly true in the case of their political opponents in the Abotani belt. At the height of their political journey, Khandu and Rijiju may have thought that “it’s time for us to do something for our own people.” This line of thinking was accentuated when Rijiju, in a meeting in Bomdila, is said to have commented: “I am no more autonomy seeker, but autonomy giver.” Kiren was then the union MoS for Home Affairs.

The majority of my sources are of the opinion that the autonomy issue is just an excuse to camouflage a pathetic financial situation that the Khandu government is handling, post Covid-19. It’s simply a diversionary tactic to divert the attention of the people away from financial mismanagements in various government departments. One senior citizen has gone to the extent of saying, “MLAs now have become beggars.”

There still are a group of persons who would take refuge in “bickering within the party (BJP)” as being responsible for Khandu’s blessing and go-ahead signal to the MARDC’s autonomy demand. There are 41 BJP MLAs and only 11 are inducted in Khandu’s council of ministers. Besides, most of the important portfolios are either with the deputy chief minister (finance, power, etc) and the chief minister (PWD, relief, rehabilitation and disaster management, tax and excise, etc). This seems to be undemocratic and does not represent equitable distribution of portfolios on the basis of the strength of the tribal population.

The members of the MARDC and the Monpa Mimang Tsogpa (Monpa People’s Organization) would argue that their democratic right of demanding autonomy for a Mon region could not be curtailed just because the chief minister and the MoS (sports & youth affairs) belong to the region. Further, their democratic aspirations, neither way, come on the path of similar aspirations of other tribal communities.

What is also significant is a sense of oneness and amiable inter-tribal relations in the state. Very often, many of the minority tribes are psychologically uprooted from certain ‘physical spaces’ which actually should belong to all communities. For example, one finds very few Monpa families permanently settled in Itanagar/Naharlagun township. Many a time, inter-personal difference turns into an ugly clan/community conflict.

As the title of my paper suggests, the demand of autonomy for the Mon region, which the People’s Republic of China considers as a ‘civilizational extension’ of Tibet, is likely to have international ramifications. Any change in the status of Mon or Tawang will have sure Chinese reactions. It needs to be remembered that China reacted sharply when Article 370 of the constitution was revoked, calling it “illegal and invalid.”

Many experts believe that trouble in the Galwan valley and others happened in response to a statement in the parliament by India’s Home Minister Amit Shah, “When I say Jammu and Kashmir, it includes… PoK and Aksai Chin.”

China looks Tibetan legacy as its basis for claim over Tawang/Arunachal Pradesh, what it calls ‘South Tibet’. In Tibetan terminology, Monyul means the land of Mon, the lower land. Tsangyang Gyatso, a Monpa, the 6th Dalai Lama, was born in 1643 in Monyul. Since the 6th Dalai Lama was a Monpa, Beijing claims, the areas where they are native (Tawang and West Kameng) were integral parts of Tibet (Jaydeep Mazumdar). Claude Arpi writes, “Beijing still dreams of controlling it (Tawang), one of the most strategic districts in the country.”

Apart from opening up a Pandora’s Box within the state, the granting of autonomy to the Mon region would pave way for similar demands by the people of Ladakh and the Gorkhas of Darjeeling. Along with Article 370, Article 35A was also repealed by the parliament. In the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, the ‘permanent residents’ were guaranteed land right (and government jobs) under Article 35A. In September 2019, it was recommended by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes that the UT of Ladakh be brought under the Sixth Schedule.

The Sixth Schedule to the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2007, which seeks to amend the constitution to include Gorkha Hill Council, Darjeeling in the Sixth Schedule, was introduced in the Lok Sabha. The Standing Committee on Home Affairs, however, advised the government to put the bill on hold, after it was referred to the committee.

If we look at the socioeconomic conditions and political consciousness of the Monpas and Sherdukpens, the communities do not fit into any of the parameters of the Sixth Schedule. Instead, the Khowa and Sartang tribes in West Kameng district deserve protection under the schedule. One of the most politically deprived communities is the Apatanis, having been represented by a lone MLA since 1978. The community, with a population of 30,000, too, deserves such protections.

If I am asked to select a community to be included in the Sixth Schedule, my natural choice would be the Puroiks. Former minister Kumar Waii had also vouched for the community, which suffered innumerable historical deprivations on various fronts, because of various reasons.

Community-based organizations are unanimous in their demand against selective autonomy. Each of the CBOs either demands autonomous status for their own community or inclusion of entire state under the purview of the Sixth Schedule. My understanding is that every organization is within its democratic right to propose or oppose any demand, but democratically. Giving a bandh call and demanding resignation of the chief minister may not contribute anything to the unity and amity of ethnic communities in a plural society like ours.

It looks easier said than done when our people aspire for extension of Articles 371A or 371G to Arunachal Pradesh. Article 371A was a product of the 16-point agreement between the government of India and the Naga People’s Convention (1960). The 371G was gift to the Mizos that emanated from the Mizo Accord of 1985. I see a possibility of similar ‘gift’ for the people of Arunachal Pradesh when we negotiate with the government of India on the refugee issue.

To conclude, the benefits of autonomous council don’t really reach the intended beneficiaries (common masses). My experiences (field visits and evaluation of PhD thesis) suggest that it only ensures circulation of elites and institutionalization of corruption. All palatial buildings and shopping malls would belong only to select executive members of the councils. I saw no material changes in the lives of ordinary voters. The Rs 1000-crore North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council scam is still fresh in our minds. (The author is Professor of Political Science, Rajiv Gandhi University, Rono Hills. He can be contacted at [email protected])