Dr. Madhav Godbole is nothing if not prolific. He produces a tome literally at the drop of a hat. The list of his publications testifies to it; and so does his unwavering focus on matters relating to state policy in contemporary India. The volume before us is a substantive piece of research on a matter of immediate relevance.
We are all familiar with the first line of Article 1 of the Constitution of India: “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” The expression “shall be” in the text visualizes the objective to be achieved and the text of the Article defines the physical contours of the existing and future contents of what is intended to be “a Union of States and Union territories.”
The focus of Dr. Godbole’s book is on the meaning of the concept of Union and on its fault line, challenges and opportunities. He recalls in this context the late Shri Durga Das’ 1969 remark that the stability of the Union will depend on two matters: (1) Centre-State relations and (2) Kashmir.
The Preface is delightfully candid. He cites Ambedkar and Rejendra Prasad to underline the point that the working of the Constitution will essentially depend not so much on the text as on the people who operate it.
He highlights the point that ‘majoritarianism is the curse of democracy’ since it impedes discussion and debate. He draws attention to its linguistic, sectarian, racial and provincial connotations and in this context cites the remark of a minister in Indira Gandhi Emergency cabinet that ‘a party with two-third majority using Three-line Whip could change the Constitution in twenty-four hours.’
Two long chapters, almost a third of the book, relate to the Kashmir question in its entirety and to the occasions on which the decisions taken or not taken could have been less subjective. The end result, he writes, is that ‘India is clearly in a cul-de-sac.’ The author’s 12- point recipe for a solution and ‘for integration, peace and normalcy’ may not necessarily produce the desired results. The public disquiet is evident; a recent visitor to the valley who went as a tourist returned with the impression that matters have deteriorated to the point that ‘Indians are hated.’ An editorial in the Indian Express of September 21 is equally candid: ‘more than two years after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, the much hailed “integration” is nowhere in sight…Only the naïve, tone deaf or the uncaring would mistake the outward absence of anger and resentment as a sign of normalcy.’
The unstated major premise in domestic political discourse on different problem areas is often ‘Islamophobia’ that is somewhat impolite to mention in political parlors except in the context of ‘Otherness’.
The major impediments to the problem of a federal India cited in the book are intermixing religion and politics, linguistic states and rise of sub-nationalism, ‘the Frankenstein of domiciliary requirements’ and the official language. The argument in each case makes impressive reading given the author’s command over facts and precedence.
I recall that in November 2007 New Delhi played host to an International Conference on Federalism in which the experience of different federal models the world over was examined. One of its themes was accommodating diversities. One participant pointed out that ‘diversity as a social fact always existed in the world-at-large but becomes a problem mainly when it exists within the territory of a
state’ often when different groups perceive one another as inferiors or superiors. Hence the need to focus on the constitutional principle of equality and ensure that identity is ‘emancipatory’ and not hegemonic.
A final chapter on Cooperative Federalism offers practical and doable correctives. It refers to the crisis in the judiciary and to the work load and delay in redress of grievances. It points out that ‘since its inception in 1990 only 11 meetings of the Inter State Council were held till July 1919’ (the last being on July 16, 2016) and reiterates the suggestion that there should a Constitutional Court along with a Court of Appeal with the latter dealing with routine matters.
In regard to the judiciary, an ‘Indian ailment’ of verbosity in court proceedings seems to defy all attempts at correctives. The practice in the US Supreme Court is to allow contending parties 30 minutes each for verbal arguments. When I mentioned this some years back to an eminent legal luminary, the response was that our preference for long presentations is conventional! I was confronted with the same problem in the Rajya Sabha during Zero Hour presentations; our corrective was to program the microphone for 3 minutes recording!
Dr. Godbole concludes the book with sobering observations:
‘a federal structure cannot work without viable mechanisms for Centre-state and inter-state consultations. It is time alternate mechanisms are adopted’. He suggests the adoption of ‘a new chapter on Indian federalism by pursuing the objective of cooperative federalism which has remained on paper so far except in the solitary case of GST. This is not going to be an easy task and will require a complete change in the mindset of the Centre and the States.’
Here lies the challenge, identified with precision by the author, and with a solution. We need a constitutional unity not a superficial oneness. The alternative may bring forth constitutional and political chaos or some form of dictatorship premised on a misplaced homogenizing ideological notion of a united India whose end result may well be its very antithesis.