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Autonomous District Council in North East India

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Dr. Laishram Dhanabir
The North-East India, home to numerous diverse ethnic groups and located strategically with borders with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh, has seen much violence and bloodshed over the past few decades. These include insurgencies in Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram and growth of militant groups in Meghalaya. In addition there are conflicts and confrontations over land use and control as well as issues of language, identity formation, demographic change and minority and majoritarian relations1. Alienation, mis-governance and corruption as well as underdevelopment are common frustrations in the region which is one of the richest regions in terms of natural and mineral resources in India. But to day maximum of insurgency groups are in the peace process execept some of the major insurgency groups of Manipur.
To tackle the problems of this unique area and safeguard the democratic traditions and cultural diversity of its people, the framers of the Constitution conceived of the instrument of tribal self-rule. This stands embodied in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. This Schedule was drafted by a Sub-Committee on North-East Frontier of the Constituent Assembly headed by Gopinath Bardoloi, the then Premier of Assam. The effort was to accommodate the collective aspirations of tribal communities within the broader framework of a democratic political system characterized by centralized powers, in a situation characterized by a mix of apprehension, confusion and hope in the days immediately preceding the adoption of the Indian Constitution2.
The North -East India consists of eight states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim covering more than eight percent of the total geographical area and 4 percent of the total population of the country. A large part of the North – East India is governed by the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Indian Constitution. The Panchayats (Extension to the schedule areas) Act, 1996 extends the 73rd Amendment: to the Fifth Schedule areas. Three states viz. Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya are exempted from the purview of the 73rd Amendment3.
The Sixth Schedule envisages establishment of Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). These councils have been given Legislative, Administrative and Judicial powers under the Sixth Schedule. No law of the Centre or the State in respect of the legislative powers conferred on the Autonomous District Councils could be extended to those areas without their prior approval. The district councils are also empowered to constitute Village councils and also Village courts4.
While the ADCs have the advantage of legislative powers which the Panchayats do not have, the Councils unlike Panchayats do not have provision for reservation for women, and powers such as social forestry management.
Articles 244(2) and 275(1) – Sixth Schedule – Provisions for administration of Tribal Areas in the States of 5:
Assam: The North Cachar Hills District Council and The Karbi Anglong District Council. Elections to the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) also formed under Sixth Schedule have been held.
Meghalaya: Khasi Hills District Council, Jaintia Hills District Council and Garo Hills District Council.
Tripura: Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council.
Mizoram: The Chakma District Council, The Mara District Council and The Lai District Council.
The District Councils comprise of 30 members for a term of five years. The Governor of the state is empowered to nominate not more than four members to the Council while the others are elected on the basis of adult suffrage. The Chief Executive Member (CEM), the Chairman and the deputy Chairman of the Council are elected from the members and the CEM selects the other executive members. There are different internal rules for different Autonomous District Councils. In some council like Mara in Mizoram, the electorates are eligible adults (anyone above 18 years) but in others like Karbi Anglong right of access to traditional lands and length of stay in the region are regarded as a qualifying criterion for being included in the voters list for the ADCs6.
The Sixth Schedule contains provisions as to the administration of tribal areas in the state of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. The aim of the Sixth Schedule was to protect hill and other tribal communities from the control and power of the groups and the plains. The process of protection began with the formation of the first District Councils in Assam, as far back as 1951. The Sixth Schedule provisions are regarded as a mini-Constitution within the main Constitution but the whole Schedule needs a close look to remove flaws, contradictions and shortcomings. Earlier, Arunachal Pradesh was also part of the Sixth Schedule and administered by the Governor of Assam as the agent of the President.
The North-East with its large number of tribal groups and newly emerging educated elites has a peculiar political history. Most of these communities had self-governing village councils and tribal chiefdoms even during late British period. Nation and state formation was absent and even in the most advanced area of the region, then Assam, the economy was run by the British. But the effort should be to give all States the opportunities provided by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. This should be done by safeguarding their traditions, without tampering with their essential rights and giving each state the chance to use its own nomenclature for such systems of governance, with local acceptance7.
Over the past decades, the systems of local-governance promoted under the Sixth Schedule have been seeking to guarantee political dominance for backward groups, better local governance at the community level, better economic development and ethnic security for those who feel threatened by large scale influx of illegal migrants and even shelters from other parts of India. There is a long list of subjects and powers as far as District Councils in the four states under the Sixth Schedule under Articles 244 (2) and 275 (I). The list includes allotment, occupation or use, or setting apart, of land, the regulation of jhum (shifting cultivation), establishment of village or town committees or councils and their powers as well as administration, flood control, trade and commerce, town and village police8.
The administration of the Tribal Areas of the Northeastern region, which were earlier known as ‘Backward Tracts, has a history of its own. The Grant of the Diwany of Bengal to the East India Company in 1765 by Shah Alam II, secured for the East India Company “superintendence of all revenues” in the Presidency of Bengal. Even prior to the taking over of the territories formerly administered under the East India Company by the British sovereign in 1858, following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the making of laws was entrusted  to the Governor General-in-Council by the Government of India Acts of 1833 and 1853. These statutes allowed laws to be made directly (or the areas which were earlier under the authority of the East India Company.
In the subsequent years, many Acts and Regulations were passed which affected the Northeastern region in diverse ways-like the Inner Line Regulation of 18739, the Scheduled Districts ACL 1874, the Government of India Acts, 1919 and 1935. Under the scheme of Provincial Autonomy, the hill areas the then province of Assam fell into two categories, viz., the Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas, as scheduled in the Order-in-Council under the Government of India Act 1935. The main concern of the administration at that period of time was more static than dynamic. Thus, the administrative insulation contributed to the prolongation of backwardness of the Northeastern region especially the areas predominantly inhabited by the tribal people. The British did everything possible to check the emotional;‘ integration between the tribal’s and non-tribal for the evolution of a spirit of common identity superseding ethnic diversities. There were even abortive attempts at keeping the Northeastern tribal areas outside the Indian Dominion when the Indian Independence Act of 1947 was being passed by the British Parliament10.
But, in free India, under the inspiring leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, the policy of winning the confidence of the tribal people and promoting closer contacts and intercourses between the tribal’s and non-tribal’s, ensuring the protection of interests of the tribal’s in their lands and autonomy to shape their lives as they desire, was followed. In the Constituent Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru moved the historic: objectives Resolution which was adopted on 22 January 1947. These objectives have actually shaped the making of the Constitution. This Resolution proclaimed that India would be an Independent Sovereign Democratic Republic wherein, inter-alia, “adequate safeguards shall be provided for the minorities, backward and tribal areas, depressed and other backward classes”11.
When the Indian Constitution was adopted, it envisaged strong democratic institutions at the grass-root level as well as concerning the affairs of the tribal communities. Consequently, democratic decentralization and establishment of Panhayati Raj became one of the Directive Principles of State Policy. However, in the case of the Tribal Areas in the country, especially those in the Northeast, there are certain specific provisions provided in the Constitution. The Constitution makers also recognized the necessity of a separate political and administrative structure for the Hill Tribal Areas of the erstwhile province of Assam by enacting the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India. In doing so, they were broadly guided by three major considerations:
(i) The necessity to maintain the distinct customs. Socio-economic and political culture of the tribal people of the region and to ensure autonomy of the tribal people and to preserve their identities12.
(ii) The necessity to prevent their economic and social exploitation by the more advanced neighboring people of the plains;
(iii) To allow the tribal people Lo develop and administer themselves according to their own genius.
An Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights of Minorities in Tribal Areas was constituted by the Constituent Assembly in India. One of the sub-committees constituted by the Advisory Committee was the Northeast Frontier (Assam) Tribal and Excluded Areas Subcommittee under the chairmanship of Gopinath Bordoloi13, The Sub-Committee visited the tribal areas in the then composite State of Assam and interacted with the representatives of the hill people in order to formulate a model administrative set up for these areas within the State of Assam. When the Sub-Committee studied the problems of the tribal people of the region, it realized that these areas needed protection and safeguard so that they might be able to preserve their way of life and at the same time participate in political life of the country along with others. it also noted the existence of the traditional tribal self-governing institutions which functioned democratically and settled their disputes in accordance with their own customs and traditions. The Sub-Committee Sought to evolve a system by which it could be possible to remove the apprehensions of the tribal people, simple and backward as they were, so that they might not be exploited, subjugated and oppressed by the more advanced people.
The recommendations of the Sub-Committee were incorporated in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution. The idea behind the Sixth Schedule was to provide the tribal people with a simple and inexpensive administration of their own, so that they could safeguard their own customs, traditions, culture, etc., and to provide them maximum autonomy in the management of their tribal affairs. The Subcommittee in particular, appreciated that the tribal people were particularly sensitive about their land. forest, traditional system of justice and social customs. 
In acceptance of the recommendations of this Sub-Committee, the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India was adopted. This provided for the Constitution of the Autonomous District Councils (Autonomous District Councils) in certain hills districts of the then composite State of Assam.
Sixth Schedule and Ethnicity in North-East
The prolonged turmoil in the North-East is rooted in two causes; (a) the question of ethnic/cultural identity, which is perceived to be threatened by encroachment/infiltration by people of other ethnic/cultural groups from within and outside the region and the country; and (2) the persistence of economic backwardness14
Creation of smaller & ethnic states does not seem to have led towards elimination of either of these causes. In any case the viability of more new states in the region is extremely doubtful. The experiments with Autonomous District Councils have also not yielded the desired results. Such a step has so far not received the favor of either the ruling politicians or the agitation leaders demanding greater autonomy or separate states. Some kind of competitive ethnicity, real and contrived, is frittering away the energy of people, besides encouraging fragmentation and social distancing. There is a need for relook. There is no justification now of ADC in Meghalaya and Mizoram. It seems waste of resources15.
The problem of encroachment and infiltration will also be easier to handle with closer monitoring at the local level, a task that can he easily and legitimately taken up by the elected local bodies. Thus democratic decentralization of power to the grassroots can lead to an ultimate solution to the twin problems of persistent underdevelopment and ethno-cultural insecurity of the people of the region. It is therefore necessary to ensure through constitutional or other provisions that politicians are not able to prevent such a process of democratic decentralization from setting in.
While the provisions like the Sixth Schedule and the PRIs require a thorough review, the existing federal arrangements and the power sharing demands new thinking. It is necessary to explore new dimensions of power sharing in the region which may address the long-standing demands of various ethnic groups to have genuine autonomy and self-rule. Should we hesitate in terms of asymmetrical federal arrangements with whatever modifications in the manner that it has been experimented in Quebec and Switzerland with success to quell bitter ethnic conflicts? And there can be no better time than this when negotiations are being held with the various rebel groups of the region16.
Sixth Schedule & Insurgency
While Sixth Schedule was incorporated in the Constitution to give Greater Autonomy to the Tribal Areas of the North-East to counter insurgency, the ADCs in Autonomous District Councils in Karbi Anglong district and North Cachar Hills district have been witnessing separatist movements in the last decade. This underlines the fact that Councils have not been able to fulfill the aspirations and address the grievances of the people of the area. Ceasefire agreements with the key insurgent groups have helped to reduce violence in the area.
Groups active in the two Autonomous Councils—United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), Dima Halim Daogah (DHD), and also Hmar People’s Convention- Democracy.17
Tripura too has been witnessing insurgency despite the formation of TTAADC. The two principal secessionist groups in the state are National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), which mostly operate from their bases in Bangladesh. Peace Accords have been signed with two factions of the NLFT— Montu Koloi and Nayanbasi Jamatiya and they have laid down arms last year17.
The relevance of the Sixth Schedule in the present context needs a serious review. The Schedule was specifically created to ensure the protection of the minor tribes from the threat of marginalization, domination and homogenization by the major tribal group under the jurisdictional area of the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs).
While the Schedule succeeded to a great extent to preserve the distinct identity and autonomy of tribal population, yet the same provision has become subject to controversies. The former excluded areas which the Schedule was supposed to protect have graduated from districts into full-fledged States such as Meghalaya and Mizoram. Therefore, the District Councils in these States are now an anachronism as they overlap the normal district administration and have tended to duplicate the former and become a rival focus of power and financial burden.
Further, the Sixth Schedule has an inherent tendency to promote ethnic polarization and sub-nationalism. At one level, the Schedule has brought out the clash of interests between the non-tribal valley dwellers and tribal hill dwellers. Further, the Schedule has problem so far as issue of representation is concerned. For instance, the Legislative Assemblies of Arunachal, Mizoram and Nagaland have all but one seats reserved for STs. This was justified when the tribal’s were in majority. But a sea change has undergone in the demography of the region. In a way, the Schedule promotes a de-facto regime of two-tiered citizenship. Unless reviewed comprehensively, the Schedule could become chief source of future conflicts in the region.
The genesis of the movements for greater autonomy by different ethnic groups in the North-East lay in the British policy of administration for the region. The system of administration established under colonial rule was effective in the plains of the region. But the hills, inhabited mostly by tribal people, were virtually left out from that system of administration. In fact the hills were classified as ‘excluded’ or ‘partially excluded’ areas and tribal communities living in such areas were allowed to continue with their traditional arrangements of self- governance’.
After independence, in an attempt to integrate these areas while preserving the tradition of self-governance of the tribal communities, the Sixth Schedule was incorporated in the Constitution of India. The Sixth Schedule provided for District and Regional Councils for the erstwhile ‘excluded’ and ‘partially excluded’ areas and these institutions were expected to integrate such areas with the modem system of administration while preserving the traditional autonomy and self-governance of the tribal people. But these arrangements failed to meet the aspirations of the newly emerging political leadership of some of the tribal groups.
Nagas demanded independence. Other groups also followed by launching movements demanding autonomy of various degrees. The Central Government responded to these demands by carrying out several rounds of reorganizations of the region and carving out new states. But instead of settling the issue, creation of the new states encouraged other ethnic groups to organize movements and agitations demanding greater autonomy, separate states and so on.

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Imphal Times is a daily English newspaper published in Imphal and is registered with Registrar of the Newspapers for India with Regd. No MANENG/2013/51092


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