Arunachal Pradesh

A coup and its echo

Print edition : March 04, 2016

A rally demanding the recall of the Governor at Naharlagun on January 1. Photo: PTI

Governor J.P. Rajkhowa. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Nabam Tuki, Congress Chief Minister who was "voted out". Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Rebel Congress leader Kalikho Pul. Photo: PTI

Nabam Rekia, who was removed from the post of Speaker.

The Governor’s role in dismissing the elected government and the imposition of President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh raise pertinent questions about Centre-State relations.

THIS is the first time since the 1962 India-China war that Arunachal Pradesh finds itself at the centre of a national debate. Barring a few incidents such as the harassment of students belonging to the State in some other States and the grant of stapled visas by China to its residents, the State has been in the news only for its vast expanse of green landscape. Now, the political battle going on in the State since December 2015 has, apart from bringing its government machinery to a standstill, made Arunachal Pradesh the focus of national attention.

On January 26, President’s Rule was imposed in Arunachal Pradesh on the recommendation of the Union Cabinet headed by Narendra Modi. The reason given for the recommendation was political instability and constitutional breakdown as the Nabam Tuki-led Congress government, which was formed in May 2014, had failed to convene the Assembly. The Congress won 42 seats in the 60-member Assembly in the elections held in April 2014 and formed the government for the eighth time in the State. In fact, Tuki was re-elected to power. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 11 seats and the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) and independents won five and two respectively. The PPA subsequently merged with the Congress, taking the latter’s strength to 47. (Arunachal Pradesh attained statehood in February 1987, but the first Assembly elections were held in 1978 when it was a Union Territory. Earlier it was called the North East Frontier Agency, or NEFA.)

On December 17, 2015, the BJP, along with rebel Congress MLAs, tabled the no-confidence motion against the Tuki government. Arunachal Pradesh, which is the largest State in terms of area in the north-eastern region, has only two Lok Sabha constituencies—Arunachal East and Arunachal West—and as such has limited ability to play a major role in influencing national policy and debate. Kiren Rijiju, who was elected from Arunachal West, is the Union Minister of State for Home. In an interview after Cabinet formation in 2014, Modi, explaining the importance of having an “ethnic” person in the Ministry, said such a person could best understand the problems of the local people and connect with them. A year later, he said: “Rijiju takes ownership for all north-east issues.” What sparked off the current crisis was the dropping of Health and Family Welfare Minister Kalikho Pul from the Council of Ministers in November 2014 during a Cabinet reshuffle. Pul accused the Tuki government of corruption, financial wrong-doing, and involvement in a multi-crore scam involving the public distribution system (PDS). He said the government had stopped the payment of stipends to students. In April 2015, Pul was expelled from the Congress for anti-party activities.

Dissidence in the Congress began to mount when Pul, along with 21 Congress MLAs, rebelled against the Chief Minister. The BJP MLAs and two independents backed the rebels.

In the meanwhile, the Governor, J.P. Rajkhowa, advanced the sixth Assembly session from January 14, 2016, to December 16, 2015, without consulting the Council of Ministers. It should be noted that the Governor’s decision to advance the Assembly session was in accordance with Article 174(1) of the Constitution, which states that the Governor can summon the House or each House of the Legislature of the State to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit, but six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next session. The last sitting of the Assembly was on July 21, 2015. On December 9, the Governor sent a message under Article 175(2) inter-alia fixing the “resolution to remove the Speaker of the House” as the prime agenda for the very first meeting of the sixth Assembly session.

In an unprecedented development on December 16, the sixth Assembly session was held on a makeshift premises of the Techi Takar community hall in the G-sector at Naharlagun after the Assembly building was locked following an order from the State administration under the direct supervision of the Speaker, Nabam Rebia, who was facing an impeachment motion, to prohibit the entry of any members. Amid massive security, 33 MLAs (11 of the BJP, 20 Congress rebels, and two independents) passed a resolution removing the Speaker.

The Deputy Speaker, Tenzing Norbu Thongdok, who presided over the “session”, adjourned the House after declaring that 33MLAs voted in favour of the resolution. Thongdok, who was mandated by the Governor to chair the winter session of the Assembly, supervised the proceedings of the House and conducted the voting, which was videotaped in the presence of the media. Later, the videotaped proceedings were submitted to the Governor for his approval. The Leader of the Opposition, Tamio Tyaga, moved the impeachment resolution to oust Rebia from the post of Speaker. Rebia challenged the Governor’s mandate and the Deputy Speaker’s decision restoring the suspended MLAs in the Gauhati High Court. In the court, Justice Hrishikesh Roy observed that the Governor’s decision to advance the Assembly session to take up the impeachment proceedings against the Speaker was in “violation of Article 174 and 175 of the Constitution”. Another bench of the High Court later overturned Justice Roy’s order and dismissed the Speaker’s writ petition.

The Arunachal imbroglio went to the Supreme Court when the Speaker challenged the dismissal of one of his pleas by the High Court. Senior advocate Harish Salve, who represents the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, told the bench comprising Justices J.S. Khehar and C. Nagappan that as important constitutional issues arose in this case, it should be placed before a constitution bench. The bench decided that since the matters pertained to the rights of the Governor, the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, the case, Nabam Rebia vs Registrar General, Gauhati High Court, be referred to a five-judge bench. This happened on January 14.

The interesting aspect of the whole turmoil emerged when the Union Cabinet recommended President’s Rule on January 24 after an unscheduled meeting headed by Modi. The Congress filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the decision. The petition said that the action of the Centre and the Governor suffered from political malice and was an unconstitutional attempt to dissolve and disrupt a legitimately elected government.

In a dramatic turn of events, even as the country was celebrating the 67th Republic Day, President’s Rule was imposed on Arunachal Pradesh while the apex court proceedings on the matter were on.

The Congress leadership termed the imposition of President’s Rule as “murder of democracy”. The Congress pointed out in its petition to the Supreme Court that there was no constitutional breakdown in the State necessitating President’s Rule. The invocation of Article 356 brings the whole State machinery under the direct control of the Union government. The Governor holds the executive authority and also has the power to appoint retired public servants to assist him in running the State administration.

The Supreme Court described the political crisis in Arunachal Pradesh as “too serious a matter” and ordered the Centre to provide the “confidential report” sent by the Governor. “Since the matter is already under the consideration of the Supreme Court, propriety demanded that the government should have awaited the outcome of the deliberations of the Supreme Court,” Congress leader Manish Tewari said. Interestingly, the Centre has asked the constitutional bench headed by Justice J.S. Khehar to maintain secrecy on the “confidential report” sent by the Governor. Top lawyers for the Congress—Fali S. Nariman, Kapil Sibal, Rajeev Dhawan and Vivek Tankha—criticised this plea from the Centre.

The controversy has been brought into sharp focus because of the Governor’s role in the crisis. The Sarkaria Commission, set up by the Government of India in 1983 to examine Centre-State relations, made 247 recommendations and one of them was on the appointment of Governors—that the Governor should be from outside the State, should be an eminent person, and should be detached from the politics in the State. The Commission also bestowed some powers and prominence to the State government by recommending that the appointment of the Governor should be done after due discussion with the Chief Minister of the State.

Given Arunachal Pradesh’s strategic location in view of its common border with China and Myanmar and the long-drawn-out border dispute with China, ex-Army generals were previously appointed as Governors of the State—Lt Gen. Nirbhay Sharma and Lt Gen. Joginder Jaswant Singh, to name two. The Commission’s recommendations have remained only on paper; the governments at the Centre more often than not have chosen candidates of their choice as Governors.

When the BJP won a massive mandate in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government headed by it started dismissing Governors appointed by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and appointing its own candidates. Rajkhowa, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and an ex-Chief Secretary of Assam, was appointed as the 16th Governor of Arunachal Pradesh on May 12, 2015. As a person with extensive knowledge of the north-eastern region, Rajkhowa would have been the right choice for the post. But what is surprising is that the government made an exception to the normal practice by appointing a retired IAS officer as Governor.

The role played by the Governor in the State did not attract much attention until one of the Ministers in the Tuki Cabinet accused him, at a meeting held in Raj Bhavan, of being a “BJP agent” out to dismantle the State machinery.

On January 31, Tuki tweeted: “Governor rule is defined by law but whoever the Governor, he or she should be neutral”. Another tweet was: “From the day Governor Rajkhowa took over, every day he wrote letters almost harassing the state government”. Rajkhowa’s appointment came at a time when the Assam-Arunachal boundary dispute was at its height. Local representatives feel Rajkhowa’s Assamese origin will affect Arunachal Pradesh’s case.

On February 1, the Supreme Court said it made a mistake of asking for the report submitted by the Governor recommending President’s Rule in the State. The court accepted the plea of the Centre, represented by Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, in which it was mentioned that the Governor enjoyed constitutional immunity and that not all the recommendations made by him would come under judicial review. This is in sharp contrast to the Supreme Court’s recent stand that scrutiny or not, the court will not remain silent if there is slaughter of democracy.

The political crisis in Arunachal Pradesh can well define the constitutional morality of the political parties. During the framing of the “Draft Constitution” in 1948, Dr B.R. Ambedkar said, quoting George Grote, that constitutional morality was “a paramount reverence for the forms of the Constitution, enforcing obedience to authority and acting under and within these forms yet combined with the habit of open speech”.

In all probability, the Congress rebels and the BJP and independent legislators will form a coalition and propose a new Chief Minister. The Governor will ask the Chief Minister to prove his majority in the House, upholding the Centre’s “principle” in forming a new government in Arunachal Pradesh.

Whatever may be the outcome of the current crisis, the misuse of Article 356 will only affect people’s belief in elections. With the State fighting to prove its ethnicity and hoping for development, the coming months will be tense. At this juncture, moving more companies and battalions of the Army into Arunachal Pradesh will aggravate the situation.

The Congress is bound to stall the Budget session of Parliament, scheduled to begin on February 23, over the Arunachal Pradesh issue, but what the State needs is the right solution to an unprecedented crisis.

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