Street and court in the battle between states

Over the years, sub-nationalisms have pushed across the impression that language and culture alone define a state.

Published: 06th December 2022 11:54 PM  |   Last Updated: 06th December 2022 11:54 PM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purpose only.

Whenever the Karnataka-Maharashtra border row erupts, there is a lot of rhetoric that rents the air. There is a lot of sub-nationalistic jingoism and linguistic chauvinism that grips activists, interest groups and politicians on both sides. However, the reality is that neither rhetoric nor chauvinism can enter a court of law. Any dispute, be it related to land or water or language—the aspects that have come to define the cultural identities of Indian states predominantly, has only to be argued within the framework of the Indian Constitution.

Sometimes the emotions and expectations generated on the street, and even in state legislatures, do not easily reconcile with reasoned, layered, cold and canny arguments in courts. In other words, courtroom deliberations of these highly emotive identity issues are not often a continuation of the logic we hear on the streets. This reading eminently applies to the Karnataka-Maharashtra border row that had flared up once again now—for the thousandth time since 1956, when the reorganisation of states was undertaken.

For instance, one can deduce two prominent themes in Karnataka’s defence in the Supreme Court against the suit filed by Maharashtra in 2004. These two themes do not necessarily intersect with popular logic on the row. One, Karnataka tries to draw the court’s attention to the nature and nuances of our federal character. Two, it tries to drive home the point that linguistic criterion was not the sole and exclusive criterion on which the states were reorganised in 1956.

Let’s first look at the federal argument. Karnataka has consistently argued that the phrase ‘Union of States’ in our Constitution does not mean the same as in, say, the Constitution of the United States of America. States in the Indian Union, it is interpreted, do not have any attributes of sovereignty as in the US Constitution. That no state in India represents a pre-existing sovereign unit. The states are supreme to the extent that our Constitution allows them to be singular and supreme. And the Constitution is clear that the Union of India is ‘indestructible’, not the states formed under it.

What this means is that Parliament has unfettered powers to increase, alter, or diminish the areas of states. The power may even extend to eliminating the very existence of a state. In the US Constitution or ‘pure federal forms of Constitution’, pre-existing sovereign states had, by an agreement, entered the union. Therefore, the American states have a right to territorial integrity, but that is not true with Indian states. That is, no state can stridently argue for its borders and convert it into a property dispute.

Karnataka’s submission quotes Dr Ambedkar’s explanation from the Constituent Assembly debates, in which the difference between the Indian and US Constitutions are spelt out clearly: “The federation was not the result of an agreement by the states to join in a federation, and that the federation not being the result of an agreement, no state has the right to secede from it. The federation is a Union because it is indestructible. Though the country and the people may be divided into different states for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source. The Americans had to wage a civil war to establish that the states have no right of secession and that their federation was indestructible. The drafting committee thought it was better to make it clear at the outset rather than leave it to speculation or disputes.”

This point of Dr Ambedkar gets reiterated in the States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) report of 1955. Many other commissions and judgments that have followed since have made this point too, quite loudly, including the Sarkaria Commission that examined the relationship between the Centre and states.

Now, on the second point, Karnataka emphasises that the linguistic criterion is not the sole and exclusive criterion on which the states were reorganised in 1956. It eloquently cites the SRC report on this. There were aspects of national security, geographical contiguity, financial viability, economic development, administrative convenience, and the welfare of the people that went into the making of the boundaries of states, and not just language. The SRC, Karnataka has fervently argued, adopted a “balanced approach” to redrawing boundaries.

The SRC report said: “After a full consideration of the problem in all its aspects, we have concluded that it is neither possible nor desirable to reorganise states based on the single test of either language or culture, but that a balanced approach to the whole problem is necessary in the interests of our national unity.” This means that linguistic homogeneity is an important factor but not the only factor on which the boundaries of states can be determined. However, over the decades, sub-nationalisms have pushed across the impression that language and culture alone define a state. The balance inherent in the SRC’s approach is never highlighted except in court battles.

Recently, there was a raging argument about India being a ‘Union of States’. Rahul Gandhi and politicians in Tamil Nadu foregrounded it to counter the flat idea of ‘one nation’ that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was trying to push across. Even then, the refinement of this idea, as it exists in our Constitution, was never discussed.

Interestingly, the argument that Karnataka has made against Maharashtra may have resonance inside its own existing boundaries. After all, the state is not culturally and linguistically flat. Karnataka has periodically seen demands for a separate Kodava state, a separate North Karnataka, demands to include Tulu in the list of the official languages under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution alongside Kannada and other languages, and the coastal districts of Karnataka have always exhibited a fair degree of autonomy from the state’s political Centre.

After Telangana was carved out from Andhra Pradesh a decade ago, cultural differences within large, linguistically contiguous terrains became even more apparent. Ironically, Karnataka claims Kannada-speaking areas in neighbouring Kerala (Kasargod) on the very principle that it denies Maharashtra its claim. This is not to rub in contradictions but to reaffirm the complexities involved in these matters. Identity issues that wear crowns of pride are never easy to settle.

Sugata Srinivasaraju

Senior journalist and author



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