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Dysfunctional Autonomous Councils Trigger State Demands


wasbir hussain
executive director,
centre for development and peace studies

Assam has had autonomous councils for six decades but now it has become clear, with leaders of various ethnic groups speaking out, that these councils have been dysfunctional all these years. Veteran CPI (ML) leader Dr Jayanta Rongpi, who had been chief executive member of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous District Council for nine years, seeks to prove this with a simple example. He said: “Before a session of the Council takes place, the Deputy Commissioner of the district has to approve the agenda. The DC is free to strike off any of the agenda proposed for discussion by the elected members at the Council session. This is the real degree of autonomy we have.”

Since this is the reality, the Government has been successfully fooling the ethnic groups vested with autonomous councils for so long. If this is true, it is also true that leaders of these ethnic groups, particularly those who have been at the helm of affairs at these councils, have miserably failed to correct the situation.

And, as for powers, less said the better: Council authorities can only appoint peons or fourth graders! “Why can Autonomous Councils only appoint peons, why can’t they appoint magistrates? Perhaps, if we provide the Councils due powers, the agitations that we are witnessing might end. We need to introspect on the demand for autonomy by our ethnic groups,” observed senior Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. The question is why are such senior political leaders in Assam appearing to talk sense only now when the state is on fire with statehood demands?

At a time when the Congress party, the dominant partner of the UPA Government at the Centre, has decided to grant the separate state of Telengana, people in authority are trying to push greater devolution of powers in Assam’s autonomous councils by decentralizing power up to the village level. There has suddenly been a realization in the corridors of power that people at the grass–roots need to be involved in the development planning process because schemes doled out by the state or by the Council authorities sitting at the district headquarter may not be needed at all or may not be suitable to a village or a cluster of villages in a particular area. There is move now to bring about this change, devolution of power to the village level, in the autonomous council areas in Dima Hasao, Karbi Anglong and the Bodoland Territorial.

When ethnic groups are now fired with hopes of securing states, whether anybody will be enthused by the idea of devolution of powers to the village level is a matter of doubt. All said and done, what is clear is that the separate state seekers are not going to give up their demand easily. Perhaps, the easiest of the agitations for the Government to tackle, and even concede, is the demand for upgradation of the autonomous councils in Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao to an autonomous state within Assam in accordance with Article 244 (A) of the Constitution. This does not even require a Constitutional amendment. As Dr Rongpi said: “Our earlier leaders agreed to stay on with Assam after the Assam Government and leaders of Assam promised to look after us properly. But, they have gone back on their promise. Other areas which split from Assam and became separate states have much higher development indices today on all fronts.”

Forget the Government, when ethnic groups are fighting to get out of Assam (Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, Koch–Rajbongshis), the State’s civil society has remained a mute spectator. Is it only the State Government’s responsibility to keep all groups and communities together, united within the state’s boundary? After watching the situation unfold for weeks after the renewed separate state stir, the All Assam Students’ Union declared that it was in favour of a united, undivided Assam where all groups stay together but with full autonomy, including fiscal autonomy. But, sadly, neither the AASU nor any other group seeking to represent the broader Assamese society have thought it necessary to hold talks with all the agitating groups who are seeking separate states.

The Congress, which has been ruling Assam for 12 years at a stretch, too, has no clue on how to address the ethnic aspirations in the State. When the situation went out of hand, with Karbi Anglong burning and Bodo areas witnessing bandhs, rail blockades and rallies, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi rushed to Delhi and told the Prime Minister that the Centre must engage in a dialogue with the statehood seekers in Assam. Now, there is a lull with the agitators awaiting a date with the Centre. And, this could well be the lull before the storm in Assam. (courtesy: The Sentinel)