Balkanisation, delimitation, and rumbling in the states

Having dodged that bullet three-quarters of a century ago, we might be in danger of facing it again—perhaps not as balkanisation but as its less intractable version: devolution
Pic credits: ANI
Pic credits: ANI

‘Balkanisation’ is a much-used, -abused, and -misused word in the mercurial Indian sociopolitical vocabulary. There is not a single social or political scientist who has not raised the issue of statal disintegration over the past decade, either in derision, predestination, or prediction. It’s a vast, nearly unimaginably heterogeneous country, held together not so much by social bonds but by an idea of itself that may either be the most ambitious statal experiment in human history or artifice in the service of a romantic ideal.

With matters coming to a social-political-religious head over the past decade, an issue previously walking the halls of academia like a spectre born of cerebration has gained enough traction to have become a bogey of the future.

Balkanisation is a word born of as much wishful desire of those affronted by the scheme of things as of desperation and despair at a possible future of the country, which is today a living paradox: unprecedentedly divisive under an equally unprecedented unitariness.

Balkanisation is defined as “the fragmentation of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states, which may be hostile or uncooperative with one another. It is usually caused by differences of ethnicity, culture, and religion and some other factors such as past grievances.”

It is possible to visualise, in alt reality, the subcontinent as balkanised at Independence. Lord Mountbatten, presiding over the transfer of power from Britain in March 1947, reportedly flirted with a plan to hack the country into a dozen or more autonomous provinces.

Mountbatten had apparently cleared this plan with London without making any of the key Indian political leaders—Gandhi, Nehru, or Jinnah—privy to it. But, uncomfortable with the idea of a fait accompli, he tentatively revealed it to Nehru, who promptly withdrew into a nightlong rage. Thickly flummoxed by Nehru’s extreme reaction, Mountbatten scrapped his piecemaking plan, and Nehru settled for a far less divisive trifurcation of the territory into two distinct sovereign nations.

Having dodged that bullet three-quarters of a century ago, we might be in danger of facing it again—perhaps not as balkanisation but as its less intractable version: devolution—the process of regions within a state demanding and gaining political strength and growing autonomy at the expense of a central government. While balkanisation ends with the formation of new states, devolution results in increased autonomy for regions.

Federalism is the softer precursor to devolution. Fed by an increasingly roiling mix of self-confidence, autarky and territoriality, federations tend towards centrifugal autonomism: the acquiring of political autonomy from a national dispensation.

In essence, devolutionary tendencies in a federation are as inevitable as night follows day. Despite the oft-bandied argument that India is a union and not a federation of states, the difference is hair-thin. Both unions and federations are held together by a glue of imposed centripetality, which the component states keep testing by pushing the envelope of conformity. And this testing is magnified in times of national stress—such as in India today.

Unlike that other beacon of democracy, the US, India has always been challenged by fissiparous tendencies. India is locked between two jaws of a vise, the Northwest and the Northeast. The desire to draw away from the republic runs deep in both regions. The ruling establishment has pretty much disenfranchised one—and, with stunning incompetence, recently rearmed the desire to secede in the other.

There is more grief headed India’s way. If we only examine probabilities with a cold eye will we acknowledge, and perhaps be able to forestall, the multistate upheaval inherent—indeed, already building—in the delimitation exercise due within five years of 2026. Delimitation will electorally disempower India’s advanced states while further muscularising its least-developed states. In effect, the states of north-central India, already carrying inordinate parliamentary heft, will gain disproportionately, at the cost of the comparatively developed states of the south and the east.

The number of seats in UP and MP will go up by 79%; in Rajasthan by 100%; Bihar by 98%; Jharkhand by 71%; Chhattisgarh by 73%; and Gujarat by 65%. In contrast, Tamil Nadu will gain by only 26%; Andhra Pradesh and Telangana by 29% each; Karnataka by 46%; Odisha by 33%; Bengal by 43%; and Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, and Meghalaya by 0%. The south has already started apprehensive SWOT analyses about unionification, and criticism is mounting in Bengal, a major constituent of the east.

But balkanisation isn’t a topic limited to malcontents inside India. China has actively prayed for the subcontinent’s disintegration.

In 2009, an article by a Chinese think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, had dismayed the Indian government. Its prescription: “Only after India has been broken up into 20-30 pieces will there be any real reform or social change in the country.” The government had complained to China—but the observation came to stay as a serious contention in Indian academia and politics.

And, then, there exists the argument that India is fast heading towards turning into a shatterbelt region à la Sudan, Balkan, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Vietnam, and Korea. In Geopolitics of the World System, Saul Bernard Cohen describes shatterbelts as “strategically oriented regions that are both deeply divided internally and caught up in the competition between Great Powers of the geostrategic realms”.

Or is India already a shatterbelt, somehow holding together in the face of centrifugality that waxes and wanes but never entirely disappears?

Would India actually be better off fragmented? Or would it lead to the gutting of the states? Like you, I have only questions and conjectures. And foreboding.

Kajal Basu

Veteran journalist

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