A relook at autonomy and governance in tribal areas of Northeast
This article is authored by Dilip Chakma, human rights lawyer and advocate, IRAC and Vikram Hegde, lawyer, Supreme Court of India.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) alliance secured a majority in the recent election to the Tripura legislative assembly. However, a significant chunk of the tribal regions expressed their preference for the Tipra Motha Party, which explicitly made part of its mandate the question of autonomy for the tribal areas of Tripura. The performance of the Tipra Motha Party, led by Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarma, from the royal family of Tripura, holds some lessons for the future.
Subsequent to the election, Debbarma has once again articulated his goals. He has also been careful to point out that his party espouses a focused cause and is not after power for its own sake. This raises the question of what this means for the autonomy of tribal regions of Tripura.
The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution makes special provisions for the governance of the Tribal Areas in the North East. The tribal areas of Tripura are covered under this Schedule. The Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council Act, 1979, operationalises this. An autonomous district council (ADC) has already been formed, and regular elections are held to this council. In the elections held to this council in 2021, the Tipra Motha Party led alliance won by a comfortable margin.
All this points to an overwhelming demand for increased autonomy in the tribal areas of Tripura. It is thus necessary to take stock of the constitutional framework for such increased regional autonomy.
The provisions of the Sixth Schedule provide for the establishment of ADCs in tribal areas, which have some degree of control over the governance of the region. These ADCs have the power to legislate on matters such as land, forests, and local taxes, and also have a degree of control over law and order.
Even within the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, Bodoland, Karbi Anglong, and Dima Hasao in Assam enjoy higher protections than those available to the protected areas in Meghalaya, Mizoram, and, of course, Tripura.
The 125th Constitution Amendment Bill seeks to amend the 6th Schedule and Article 280 to increase financial and executive powers of the existing 10 ADCs but it falls short of providing “direct funding” to them. If passed, it would also give constitutional recognition to the Autonomous Council in Tripura.
It is believed that it will give the existing ADCs greater autonomy and control over their governance. However, it would still be short of the aspirations of the people.
Apart from the stifled financial resources, the ADCs also suffer from other problems. For example, the lack of any anti-defection mechanism analogous to the tenth schedule of the constitution, has led to instability in the autonomous council governments in Mizoram. This would naturally hamper developmental work.
The Tipra Motha chief has been insisting on a “constitutional solution” and clearly, he is not satisfied with the proposed 125th Constitutional Amendment Bill.
Another model of regional autonomy which is readily available for consideration would be the associate state model seen under Article 244A. This Article contemplated an autonomous state within Assam, covering the areas which today comprise the state of Meghalaya. This system of a state within a state would be useful if the parliament devolves most of the powers under State List and Concurrent List to the legislative assembly of the autonomous state.
The other systems which have been seen in the Northeast include the set-up under Article 371A(d) which was in effect in the erstwhile Tuensang district of Nagaland. However, under that system, the fact that a bureaucrat was the chief executive of the regional council undermined the very purpose of autonomy.
Another model is the one under Article 371C which grant special powers to the hill areas of Manipur.
It is crucial to consider the experience of the tribals of Northeast region and their particular demands. For example, the tribal regions of Tripura have expressed their desire for greater autonomy, while eastern Nagaland has sought a separate state. There has also been a long-pending demand from Mizoram’s three ADCs to amend the Schedule so that the funds from the Centre come directly to the Councils instead of being routed through the state.
The demands of these regions need to be taken into account while formulating a solution.
The solution reached for the autonomy of the tribal regions of Tripura will have wider implications for other regions of the country where demands for greater regional autonomy are rising. Demands to be included under the Sixth Schedule have also come from some areas not in the Northeast India, such as Ladakh.
The enhancement of financial and executive powers of the Sixth Schedule ADCs will have a significant impact on the governance and autonomy of tribal areas. It is vital to ensure that the solution reached is equitable, just, and sustainable.
This article is authored by Dilip Chakma, human rights lawyer and advocate, Indigenous Rights Advocacy Centre (IRAC) and Vikram Hegde, lawyer, Supreme Court of India.