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An Alternative Formulation for Autonomous Councils in Assam

An alternative formulation of a "de-territorialised" autonomy in Assam staying true to the Sixth Schedule, but entailing amendments to the Constitution is proposed. This should address the concerns of minorities, the claims of other ethnicities for their own autonomous councils and indeed reconcile the presence of "differentiations" and ethnic claims in the state. This alternative formulation could help the state adhere to the idea of a truer autonomy and democracy.


An Alternative Formulation for knowledge, development and ways of being in the face of pressures from appar-
Autonomous Councils in Assam ently all-encompassing domination by colonial powers (Kevin et al 2006: 190).
Defensive localisation imposes rigid bound
aries around the “spatial local” and mini-
Jayanta Krishna Sarmah mises internal differences in the name of

An alternative formulation of a “de-territorialised” autonomy in Assam staying true to the Sixth Schedule, but entailing amendments to the Constitution is proposed. This should address the concerns of minorities, the claims of other ethnicities for their own autonomous councils and indeed reconcile the presence of “differentiations” and ethnic claims in the state. This alternative formulation could help the state adhere to the idea of a truer autonomy and democracy.

Jayanta Krishna Sarmah (jayanta1947@gmail. com) is at the department of political science, Gauhati University, Guwahati, Assam.

Economic & Political Weekly

august 27, 2011

he idea of autonomy is based on the principles of minority and indigenous rights and the right to selfdetermination for a community or a region to bestow it substantial administrative, fiscal policy and other powers. The concept of autonomy also contains aims of preserving and promoting traditional indigenous cultures. An examination of the exercise of autonomy in the autonomous councils of Assam is in order to ascertain the practice of the principle. Such an examination should also help evolve alternative structures to that which are in place.

The concept of autonomy initially referred to “self-legislation”, whereby the autonomous individual carried out its will on itself by itself (Schneewind 1997). It has since then also been defined as selfestablished rules, self-determination, selforganisation and containing self-regulating practices particularly vis-à-vis the State and capitalist social, economic and cultural relations. Rawls (1971: 516) also suggested that “acting autonomously is acting from principles that we would consent to as free and equal human beings”.

It is also wrong to suppose that democracy can do without a concept of autonomy altogether. According to Sartori (1987: 315), democracy is the most difficult objective to achieve and also the most vital; an ideal that all human beings desire. Fleming (1995:1) argues that the right of autonomy must be situated within a constitutional constructivism – a guiding framework for constitutional theory with two fundamental themes – deliberative democracy and deliberative autonomy rooted in the language and d esign of the Constitution.

Another important discourse of autonomy involves demands for autonomy from hegemonic relations resulting in colonial domination and developmental dependency. These are characterised, for example, by calls for “defensive localisation”, focusing on preserving locally specific forms of

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some local good.

Such definitions considered, autonomy in the north-east of India is perceived mainly in ethnic terms. This results in an inevitable conflict between autonomy and overdependence on the centre because of the lack of an economic base in the various states. Instead of tackling the real issues of isolation and of socioeconomic development, the focus of attention shifts towards the accommodation of competing ethnic claims. At the sametime, demo graphy is the key to understand the dynamics of these movements. Thus, the emphasis on culture and ethnic identity is a response to the demographic number games.

The north-eastern tribal people had been living in isolation autonomously for centuries (Sing 2002: 39). The British inherited and continued the “inner line” policy from the Ahoms, who ruled Assam for 600 years. The Inner Line Regulation, 1873; the Scheduled Districts Act, 1874; the Government of India Act, 1919 and the Government of India Act, 1935 broadly unfold British tribal policy and administrative principles in erstwhile composite A ssam. Assam has been subjected to a process of political fission after Independence to meet the demand of political a utonomy of different ethnic tribes and some structured geographical units.

In order to bring the tribal people into the mainstream of national politics and also for their welfare, a number of provisions are incorporated in the Constitution. Among them, some are specifically formulated for the tribes of north-east India. For example, Article 244(2) of the Constitution provides for a Sixth Schedule for bringing development of the tribes of north-east India only because it was assumed that these tribes have some special problems of their own. The idea behind the Sixth Schedule was to provide the tribal people with a simple a dministrative system of their own, so that they could safeguard their own customs and


traditions and to provide them maximum autonomy in the management of their tribal affairs.

Comprehensive Innovation

The Sixth Schedule is a comprehensive innovation and is one of the important features of administration in the north-east India. Currently, 10 autonomous councils are functioning in four states of north-east India under it among which three are in the present reorganised Assam. These are: the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC); the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (NCHAC); and the Bodoland Territorial A utonomous District (BTAD).

These are not homogeneous and are rather diverse in terms of historical background, population size and pattern, geographical area and structure and even with regard to constitutional provisions. Apart from Sixth Schedule mandated a utonomous councils, six other statutory autonomous councils are constituted in Assam after prolonged agitations by small ethnic communities and as a result of the extensive deliberations between the government and the respective leaders of these communities. These non-sixth schedule autonomous councils are: Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council, the Tiwa Autonomous Council, the Mising Autonomous Council, the Deori Autonomous Council, the Sonowal Kachari Autonomous Council and the Thengal Kachari Autonomous Council.

At the same time, voices have been raised by different communities, including Amri Karbi, Garos of Assam, Gorkha, Non-Dimasa (Kuki, Hmar, Biate, Hrangkhol, etc) communities in N C Hills and recently the scheduled caste communities in Assam in favour of their demand for more autonomous councils for them within the state.

The active role of militant organisations within some autonomous councils is a matter of concern for the democratic life of the respective areas. Extortion is a m ajor issue in the autonomous council areas. Even after the ceasefire and surrender of hundreds of cadres of different militant groups, extortion by several groups and organisations from businessmen and officials to even the laymen has raised serious concerns among the entire populace of the NCHAC, KAAC, BTAD and surroundings.

The notable presence of non-tribals in the present autonomous council areas since time immemorial and their present position in the new structure makes it i mperative that their rights are safeguarded within the “autonomous” arrangements. Looking at their percentage, provisions are made both in the sixth and non-sixth schedule autonomous councils for the representation of the minority communities. However, it is observed that the seats are not properly reserved in proportion to the population for representation to elect

o ther tribal and minority communities l iving inside the autonomous councils.

Customary law is the backbone of the Sixth Schedule areas and the provisions fail if the customary law is not fully implemented. Due to the Assam government’s inability to declare “The Rules for the Administration of Justice and Police in the Sibsagar, Nowgaon and Mikir Hills Tracts (Mikir Hills) 29 March 1937” as replaced by “the Mikir Hills Autonomous District (Administration of Justice) Rules 1954”, the 1937 rules still remain effective and operational.

Alternative recommendations can indeed be made to restructure and redesign the autonomous councils so that they are true to the definitions and articulations of the principle of “autonomy” as proposed by various thinkers and mentioned earlier in the article. This author presents one such alternative based on the principle of de-territorialisation and reconstruction.

De-Territorialisation and Reconstruction

Considering the presence of such diversity within the state, a natural federal formulation within Assam is recommended. To implement these recommendations, special provisions are to be made for the state in favour of an intra-federal structure within the state among all the ethnic communities recognising the natural diversity within the overall population. The failure of the present system in the post Independence era is basically due to the manipulation of autonomous councils from the top by a very centralised power structure, which artificially impresses the formation, expansion or dissolution of different categories of autonomous body. At this juncture, the very existence of the autonomous structures depends on the wishes of the topmost layers of the power hierarchy.

An alternative conception of differentiated citizenship is recommended which is based on the acknowledgement of the p olitical relevance of difference. Differentiated citizenship in Assam will recognise the pluralist character of the democratic community in the state. Instead of difference-blind universalism, differentiated




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Economic Political Weekly


citizenship develops the sense of collective belongingness and equal respect for the “other”. At the same time, a number of rights could be ensured and established, viz, special representation rights, multicultural rights, self-government rights or rights to self-determination, etc.

Autonomy should not be viewed as a tool to govern people of the frontier or p eriphery. It is to be taken as the integral and inherent part of the democratic process. It should not be regarded as a process to deal with extraordinary circumstances, and instead must be taken as a spontaneous flow of political life.

An alternative approach of the de-territorialising of the present autonomous councils is considered necessary, looking at the population mix of the state. By deterritorialising of the autonomous councils, the whole multicultural domain of the state is represented. De-territorialising helps to bring to a standstill the ethnic conflicts based on territorial demand.

By de-territorialising the autonomous councils, any member of a community may feel as an integral part of his or her own community and accordingly of their own autonomous council. Territorial boundaries of the autonomous here will not restrict one to be a part of an autonomous council. For example, one citizen of the Bodo community residing in Karbi Anglong, N C Hills or anywhere in Assam can participate in the process of election and other variety of activities of the Bodo A utonomous Council. Correspondingly, a Karbi citizen residing outside the Karbi Anglong district in Assam will be regarded as the integral part of the Karbi Autonomous Council, which is not possible in the present structure.

De-Territorialising the Councils

In this process of de-territorialising, the present grievances of non-representation of the minority tribes or other communities will end altogether. De-territorialising autonomous councils will pave the way to constitute a number of other autonomous councils for the indigenous ethnic communities. All the very small, small and comparatively large communities could live together preserving their self-identity, equal respect and developing a sense of collective belongingness.

A de-territorialised reconstruction of the autonomous councils in Assam would therefore entail – at the very top, the presence of a supreme council of autonomous councils (SCAC) which would

(a) have equal representation of all the autonomous councils – small or large, two members each; (b) be a permanent body where one-third of the seats are filled up every two years through elections; and (c) be elected for a period of six years by the elected members of the r es pective autonomous councils. The autonomous councils themselves would be comprised of members varying from 20 to 40 depending on the size of the population of the community including the chief executive member and the deputy chief executive member.

In this alternative formulation of nonterritorial autonomous councils in Assam, a number of autonomous councils of equal status will be created. All the ethnic communities will get their councils. The new de-territorialised autonomous councils are to be constituted as an elected body for a period of five years by the adult citizens of the concerned community in A ssam. Polling booths are to be established on the basis of the density of the population of the community, and very small number of population in some area may use the postal ballot.

The chairman and deputy chairman of the supreme council could be elected from amongst the members and by the members for a period of two years. Their power and positions could be determined later on and the SCAC may be placed at par with the legislative council in the present structure.

In this formulation there will be no scope of further division of Assam. Instead, a sense of unity and integrity will flourish, which in turn will help the very process of national integration with strong federal character. Future studies could be made to extend this model to the whole of the north-east India and some other special parts of the country.


Fleming, James E (1995): Securing Deliberative Autonomy, Stanford Law Review, Vol 48, No 1, p 1.

Kevin, Morgan, Marsden Terry and Murdoch Jonathan (2006): Worlds of Food: Place, Power and Provenance in Food Chain, Oxford University Press.

Rawls, J (1971): A Theory of Justice (Bellnap: Cambridge).

Sartori, Giovanni (1987): The Theory of Democracy R evisited, 2 vols (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers).

Schneewind, Jerome B (1997): The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy

(Cambridge University Press).

Sing, Bhupinder (2002): Autonomy Movements and Federal India (Jaipur and New Delhi: Rawat P ublications).


Windows of Opportunity


A ruminative memoir by one who saw much happen, and not happen, at a time when everything seemed possible and promising in India.

K S Krishnaswamy was a leading light in the Reserve Bank of India and the Planning Commission between the 1950s and 1970s. He offers a ringside view of the pulls and pressures within the administration and outside it, the hopes that sustained a majority in the bureaucracy and the lasting ties he formed with the many he came in contact with. Even more relevant is what he has to say about political agendas eroding the Reserve Bank’s autonomy and degrading the numerous democratic institutions since the late 1960s.

Pp xii + 190 ISBN 978-81-250-3964-8 2010 Rs 440

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Economic Political Weekly

august 27, 2011 vol xlvi no 35

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