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The demand of states for autonomy is long pending, and Tamil Nadu has spearheaded it for decades. The Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution as far back as April 20, 1974 seeking autonomy for states. Last week, Chief Minister MK Stalin said he had spoken to West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and decided to convene a meeting of chief ministers of non-NDA-ruled states in Delhi to discuss the “threat posed to autonomy of states”.

In 1974, then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi tabled the seminal Rajamannar committee report on state autonomy, which was adopted by the Assembly after a long debate. It was sent to the Union government, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told Karunanidhi it would soon be looked into.

But 48 years later, the Rajamannar Committee report is back in the news.

India is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country. It’s regional aspirations and demands must be taken care of. ‘Unity in plurality’ is the basic tenet India’s political structure. Most people-centric duties and obligations rest with the state government. Therefore, autonomy of states is essential to perform these duties effectively.

Anna made the demand early on

“Federal at Central; Autonomy in the state.” proclaimed former chief minister and founder of the DMK CN Annadurai. In a Pongal special edition of the magazine Kanchi, he wrote about state autonomy, in what is considered his last will.

“…the Constitution of India should be amended so that the States can have more powers…. Not only our League but many other political parties and many non-party intellectuals are supporting this….”

CN Annadurai argued for state autonomy in Parliament in 1963. “The Preamble to the Constitution says that political sovereignty rests with the people. Legal sovereignty is divided between the federal union and the constituent units,” he said, adding that states should be “effective sovereign units” and not be reduced by the Centre into “dole-getting corporations”.

He had earlier argued for state autonomy in Parliament in 1963. “The Preamble to the Constitution says that political sovereignty rests with the people. Legal sovereignty is divided between the federal union and the constituent units,” he said, adding that states should be “effective sovereign units” and not be reduced by the Centre into “dole-getting corporations”.

In 1969, Anna wrote a letter titled “Hail the Dawn” in Home Rule Weekly, his last letter in the “Thambikku” (For brother) series of letters, in which he said:

“Dear brother! I’m not a fanatic. I am not at all pleased to be the Chief Minister of a state under (our) Constitution that claims to be pro-federal on the blank sheet and, in practice, concentrates more powers on the central government.”

Karunanidhi took forward the demand

After the demise of Anna, when Karunanidhi became chief minister, he met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi on March 17, 1969, and told reporters: “Our position is that the states’ powers shall be well defined and have autonomy. It is the dream of our leader Anna, and it is the policy and principle of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.”

On August 19, 1969, he constituted the three-member Rajamannar committee to understand the issues that surround state autonomy. The panel was led by then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court PV Rajamannar, along with Vice-Chancellor of Madras University A Lakshmanasamy Mudaliar and Judge of Madras High Court P Chandra Reddy as members. The move was welcomed by then CM of Punjab Gurnam Singh.

The Rajamannar Committee submitted its report to the Chief Minister on May 27, 1971.

Federalism, not Separatism

Many eminent leaders like former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister NT Rama Rao, former Karnataka Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, former Chief Minister of Kashmir Farooq Abdullah, former President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, and Justice VR Krishna Iyer voiced support for Karunanidhi’s clarion call on state autonomy. No one can doubt their passion for national unity.

The call for State autonomy should not be equated with separatism or approached at any time as a threat to India’s unity. Various political movements, including the Congress, spoke with this understanding.

Application of Article 356 went unabated till the dismissal of the Karnataka Government led by SR Bommai, who sued the Union of India. In SR Bommai v Union of India, the Supreme Court on March 11, 1994 issued a watertight judgment that the Central government could not arbitrarily dissolve State governments using Article 356. Centre-state relations were also discussed in the judgment.

How Centre used Article 356 to crush elected state governments

Under Article 356 of the Constitution of India, the Union government can take direct control of state machinery. The Centre has so far dissolved State governments 128 times using Article 356.

It was first done in Punjab on June 20, 1951 to dissolve Dr Gobi Chand Bhargava’s Congress government. Subsequently, it was used to dismiss Patiala and East Punjab States Union (PEPSU).

In 1959, the Centre dissolved the Namboodiripad-led Communist regime in Kerala.

Application of Article 356 went unabated till the dismissal of the Karnataka Government led by SR Bommai, who sued the Union of India. In SR Bommai v Union of India, the Supreme Court on March 11, 1994 issued a watertight judgment that the Central government could not arbitrarily dissolve State governments using Article 356. Centre-state relations were also discussed in the judgment.

So far, 130 bills have been brought to amend the Constitution of India.

Since independence, a great number of committees have analyzed the subject of state autonomy. The Rajamannar committee formed by Karunanidhi was their forerunner.

  1. The Central Government’s Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Morarji Desai, later headed by Karnataka MP Hanumanthaiah, submitted its report on September 28, 1967
  1. AN Sivaraman, Editor of Dinamani and a Congress member, wrote a Tamil book titled ‘Provincial Autonomy’. Scholar and former central minister K Santhanam also submitted a report on April 1, 1970.
  1. On October 16-17, 1973, the Shiromani Akali Dal Party passed a resolution endorsing state autonomy in the Anandpur Sahib Conference.
  1. December 1, 1977, then Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu sent a report by then Finance Minister and economist Ashok Mitra to PM Indira Gandhi.
  1. Again, Basu sent a White Paper on Centre-State relations and financial distributions on October 8, 1983. It was also discussed at the Srinagar Conference convened by Farooq Abdullah.
  1. The Central government itself, headed by PM Indira Gandhi, appointed the Justice Sarkaria commission on June 9, 1983, to look into Centre-State relations.
  1. Leaders of 59 non-Congress opposition parties (17 political parties) met in Srinagar, on October 5, 6, 7 of 1983 to announce the Srinagar Declaration on Centre-State Relations. Karunanidhi was present. It also discussed the proclamation on Section 356, and appointment of governors and the high court judges. These events were reported by Sathi Sahni, and published as an English book titled ‘Centre-State Relations’.
  1. Ramakrishna Hegde, CM of Karnataka from 1983 to 1988, held a meeting of non-Congress southern chief ministers in Bangalore on March 20, 1983. TN Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, Pondicherry CM Puthuvai Ramachandran, Andhra Pradesh’s NT Rama Rao, apart from CMs of and New Delhi and Karnataka were present. Kerala, ruled by Congress, did not take part. Hegde issued a white paper, including recommending the abolition of the post of governors. MGR presented the report to the TN Assembly on March 23, 1983.
  1. NT Rama Rao as CM of Andhra Pradesh held a similar meeting on May 28, 1983, in Vijayawada. LK Advani, Akali Dal leader Barnala, Congress (S) leader Sharad Pawar, Marxist Communist Party leader Basavapunnaiah, HN Bahuguna, former Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, former Union Minister Jagajeevan Ram, Maneka Gandhi and others were present. A resolution was adopted to strike down Article 356. The Telugu Desam Party’s report on Centre-State relations was also released.
  1. Asom Gana Parishad issued a declaration at the All India All Party Conference in Shillong that Article 356 should be removed. Similar resolutions were passed at the Patna all-party meeting.
  1. MGR as CM convened a conference in Chennai on January 5-8, 1984, and presented the report to the Centre’s Sarkaria Commission. It was also tabled in the legislature.
  1. On April 8, 1989, Former Supreme Court Judge VR Krishna Iyer issued a detailed report titled, “Do you want a Governor or not?”
  1. Former Union Minister C Subramaniam’s speech on Centre-State relations in the All India Radio Sardar Patel memorial Lectures in Hyderabad on November 8-9, 1991 was published as a book by Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
  1. A State Autonomy Conference was held in Kanchipuram by MDMK on July 24-25, 1999. I drafted a document, which was presented to the Centre’s MN Venkatachaliah Committee subsequently.
  1. CM Farooq Abdullah set up a committee to explore state autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, and a national convention discussed the report.
  1. When AB Vajpayee was PM, the MN Venkatachaliah panel was set up on February 22, 2000, to review India’s Constitution, study Centre-State relations and the role of Governors.
  1. Raja J Sellaiah’s 2006 report on Centre-State Relations and Fiscal Reforms is also vital.
  1. Manmohan Singh as PM constituted the Justice Madan Mohan Punchhi commission in 2007 to study Centre-State relations.

Besides these, when former President Pranab Mukherjee was expelled from the Congress and led a separate political movement in West Bengal, he participated in a meeting convened by Karunanidhi on state autonomy in Chennai. He was very vocal in his support for state autonomy. We must also recall the contributions made by Ma Po Si on state autonomy.

We must revisit these histories to better understand the present times.

(KS Radhakrishnan is an advocate)


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