It’s not often that a chief minister publicly disapproves a proposed visit by ministers of another state. The CM finds it ‘inappropriate’ and gets his chief secretary to convey the same to the neighbouring state.
Whatever happened to Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam! It looks bizarre as the CM and ministers from the neighbouring state are from the same party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and ally Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena. But this is only the latest in the border row between Karnataka and Maharashtra.
“We are capable of protecting the borders of Karnataka,” CM Basavaraj Bommai thundered last month. The steeliness of his tone would befit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy while he addresses his countrymen. The decades-long dispute between the two states over 800-odd villages in Karnataka threatens to take an ugly turn as the two governments have upped the ante, announcing pensions and incentives for linguistic groups—Kannada and Marathi-speaking—in each other’s state.
The Centre has, in the meantime, chosen to be a mute spectator. One could argue that the ruling parties in these two states are just playing to the gallery and there is nothing serious about their statements. Maharashtra deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis, while demanding the inclusion of Karnataka’s Marathi-speaking areas in Maharashtra, maintains that there is no enmity between the two states and it’s a legal issue that’s being pursued in the Supreme Court. Be that as it may, but raising political temperatures on this issue may lead to unintended consequences. Maybe, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is too caught up with poll campaigns to focus on what may be a mere battle of political one upmanship. Or, maybe, it’s politically inconvenient for the top BJP leadership to get embroiled in a dispute between two states where it has huge stakes.
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Long list of Centre-state, inter-state disputes
The Centre’s seeming reluctance to get dragged into border disputes is, however, self-defeating. A party that constantly invokes Sardar Patel’s contributions to the making of India can’t be looking the other way as border disputes threaten to turn bloody. Just about a fortnight ago, six people were killed in police firing on the Assam-Meghalaya border. It included five villagers from Meghalaya and an Assam forest guard, sparking tensions on both sides of the border. Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma flew down to Delhi to meet Union Home Minister Amit Shah and demand a central probe into firing “by Assam police”. The BJP, which rules Assam, is also a part of the Sangma-led coalition government in Meghalaya.
In July 2021, five Assam police personnel were killed in firing by Mizoram police in a border flare-up. It led to prolonged tensions between the two states even as PM Modi and Amit Shah refrained from reacting to the incident for weeks.
So much was the hostility between the two sides that Mizoram police lodged an FIR against Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma. It was withdrawn subsequently. The Assam-Mizoram border clash happened barely two days after Amit Shah had returned from Shillong after a meeting on inter-state border disputes.
Assam also has border disputes with Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. Assam CM Sarma has been proactively engaging with his counterparts in these states to resolve these disputes. But given their complexities and strong public sentiments on all sides of these borders, the Centre must play a much more proactive role and not just make customary statements here and there, leaving it to the warring parties to sort things out on their own.
The BJP has virtually driven out the Congress from the Northeast, building a loose coalition with regional parties that rule the northeastern states. The ruling party at the Centre, therefore, finds itself in a precarious position whenever these border disputes take a nasty turn.
It’s not just the border disputes. In October, Uttarakhand police lodged an FIR against a dozen unnamed police officials from Uttar Pradesh following the death of a woman in the hill state during an alleged operation by UP’s special operation group. A senior Uttarakhand official—additional chief secretary (home)—went public, accusing the UP police of arresting “innocent people” and claiming to “solve the case”. UP police retorted, calling her remark “irresponsible”.
Again, the BJP happens to be the ruling party in both Uttarakhand and UP. For a party that promises “double engine” growth—with the same party running the governments at the Centre and in states—running feuds between states where it leads governments flies in the face of its claims and promises.
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Modi’s silence amid deteriorating relations
The above-mentioned instances involving BJP-led governments are meant to only illustrate the larger issue of growing dissonance—and often feuds—between states and between non-BJP-ruled states and the Centre. Decades-old fight between Punjab and Haryana over their claims over Chandigarh has resurfaced even as Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar has renewed demand to transfer 400 Hindi-speaking areas in Punjab to Haryana. As many as ten states have withdrawn general consent, barring the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from investigating cases in those states. A state assembly has even passed a resolution against central investigative agencies. Non-NDA governments in states are at war with governors.
Chief ministers often choose to stay away from meetings convened by the Prime Minister. Telangana CM K Chandrasekhar Rao wasn’t present to receive Modi at the airport the last four times the PM visited the capital. There are numerous other examples of states being in collision course with the Centre. Much has been written about these issues.
The moot point is: Why doesn’t PM Modi seem much bothered about it? The Inter-State Council constituted to support Centre-state and inter-state coordination and collaboration hasn’t met for the last six years although it’s supposed to meet thrice a year. The PM-headed council was reconstituted six months ago but it still hasn’t met. Irritants in Centre-states relations are usually addressed through attacks on each other in political rallies. Water disputes between states continue to fester, with the tribunal mechanism failing to deliver and the Centre usually looking the other way.
PM Modi speaks so often about how Sardar Patel united India through the merger of princely states. At an election rally recently, he said that he is following in Patel’s footsteps as he “resolved” the Kashmir problem.
So, why does the PM choose to remain silent when states engage in territorial fights over linguistic groups, their police forces fire at each other over border disputes and the concept of cooperative federalism lies shattered? Why does he look so unenthusiastic about the inter-state council mechanism? It’s possible that he finds most of it driven by political considerations. He may have reasons to see political agendas behind opposition parties’ constant diatribe against the Centre and its agencies and institutions. But this is not a good enough reason to allow the worsening of Centre-states relations. It doesn’t serve his oft-stated national building goals.
Is it that PM Modi finds water, border and other disputes between states too messy to get himself embroiled in? Well, the task of integrating the Princely States into the Union of India was far too messier. Following in Patel’s footsteps is easier said than done.
Views are personal.