From state to Union Territories: Is Jammu and Kashmir an anomaly or a precedent?

Can a state today become a Union Territory tomorrow? And what happens to cooperative federalism?
From state to Union Territories: Is Jammu and Kashmir an anomaly or a precedent?
From state to Union Territories: Is Jammu and Kashmir an anomaly or a precedent?
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In a matter of two days, ‘Paradise on Earth’ was cleaved into two. Jammu and Kashmir went from being a state to two Union Territories, with Parliament passing the J&K Reorganisation Bill. While the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir will have a legislature – much like Puducherry or Delhi – Ladakh will become a UT without one.

Diminishing people’s representation, the two Union Territories will now come under the control of the Union Home Ministry and will be administered by a Lieutenant Governor, who is a central government appointee, alongside an elected Chief Minister in the case of Jammu and Kashmir. Union Home Minister Amit Shah had justified the division of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories citing the “prevailing internal security situation, fueled by cross border terrorism.” He also cited the long pending demand of the people of Ladakh to grant them Union Territory status.

The move is the first time in India’s political history where a state has become a Union Territory. India has, as Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty writes in The Wire, historically seen UTs becoming states, many a time under violent circumstances. And although the BJP-led Union government was able to comfortably pass the J&K Reorganisation Bill in both Houses, several opposition leaders voiced aloud their fears on the Centre’s decision. “Tomorrow you can do anything with any state. Tomorrow you can bifurcate any state. You can dismiss the state, dissolve the Assembly, take everything into your possession and bring any Bill,” said TK Rangarajan, the CPI(M)’s Rajya Sabha MP. 

His thoughts were also echoed by DMK’s Rajya Sabha MP Tiruchi Siva, who said, “What we are afraid of is, will it stop with this? Tomorrow, the same powers will be vested with you and you can convert any state into a Union Territory. It may be Tamil Nadu, it may be Bihar, it may be Bengal, it may be Maharashtra.”

So, can the splitting of Jammu and Kashmir set a precedent? Are the fears of these Parliamentarians justified, whereby a state today can tomorrow become a Union Territory, directly under the control of the Centre? 

“These are unprecedented circumstances,” said Ramu Manivannan, Professor and Head of Department of Politics and Public Administration at Madras University to TNM, “This is a strategy, rather than a policy choice. The government says it wants to evaluate and then restore statehood after looking into prospects of political situation and response on the ground. They can’t keep it forever in Union Territory status. It is purely strategic than a permanent solution.”

He was referring to Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement in Parliament that full state status will be restored to Jammu and Kashmir, “at an appropriate time, when normalcy returns.”

Speaking to TNM, Mathew Idiculla, Research Consultant at the Centre for Law and Policy Research said, “I don’t anticipate other states becoming Union Territories.” However, citing the cases of Goa, a Portuguese territory even after India’s Independence, which became a Union Territory in 1961 and thereafter a state in 1987, and Sikkim, which was an Indian protectorate before it became a state in 1975, Mathew observed, “Jammu and Kashmir is the opposite of what happened in the case of Goa and Sikkim. It is a reversal of what is usually the case. In many ways, it is a betrayal of India’s promise.” 

“Even if you discount Article 370, Jammu and Kashmir joining the Union unilaterally and then being split and made into Union Territories, it is a dangerous signal to federalism in India. I don’t see it being repeated, but it can technically be possible. All states should be concerned,” he said.

He further pointed out that the special status that 10 states including those in the northeast enjoy, now comes into question. “All of these provisions can be withdrawn unilaterally. It really raises question marks and alarm bells,” said Mathew.

Jammu and Kashmir’s division has also raised questions on the nature of a centrally administered unit in a democracy, the spirit of cooperative federalism among others.

Mathew pointed out that Union Territories are a byproduct of India’s colonial history. In British India, major provinces like Madras or Bombay were administered by a Governor or a Lieutenant Governor in the case of Bengal, while minor provinces like Andaman and Nicobar Islands and North West Frontier Province (present day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan) were administered by a Chief Commissioner.

In present day, however, he argued, “Union Territories are an anomaly in a democratic set up. It is not common in federal countries, where the exceptions are national capitals as in the case of Washington DC, which is the District of Columbia and not a full state.”

Calling the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two UTs a blow for cooperative federalism, Mathew further said, “Any claim of this government promoting cooperative federalism sounds hollow. If you shut down a state, impose curfew and President's rule, there is no Assembly and you impose Union Territory status without any form of consultation from people and stakeholders, it is a blow for cooperative federalism, and is against Constitutionalism.”

Ramu Manivannan said, “We are moving from quasi-federal to paper federal. If it is quasi-federalism – it is a function of administrative practically.” He noted that subjects like education, which is on the concurrent list, water and agriculture, which are on the state list are drifting away from the state. “With or without Article 370, state powers have been decreasing. It has been happening for a long time,” said the professor.

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