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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 25

Exploring the Different Meanings of Autonomy

Sunday 8 June 2008, by Shagun Sharma



The Politics of Autonomy by Ranabir Samaddar (ed.); Sage Publications, New Delhi.

The edited volume contains detailed essays on the theme of autonomy. While viewing the dynamics of autonomy in India from various angles, the editor in his introductory essay suggests that the demand for autonomy has been one of the core issues in Indian politics. The essays in this volume invariably paint a dismal picture as far as the realisation of autonomy is concerned since that could not fulfill the aspirations of the people. Somewhere the community rights are still not recognised when it comes to their political aspirations. The first set of contributors extend across a wide range of issues relating to peace accords, Indian federalism, women’s autonomy and autonomy in international law.

The statement of autonomy mentioned here is different from the standpoint of Michel Foucault. For him autonomy is signature of governmentality. Ranabir Samaddar relates autonomy to rights. He talks about dialogic politics that emerges from the quest of minimal justice. Autonomy can become governmentalised but the imperative of autonomy is to become autonomous to governmentality. The State’s response to the demands for autonomy is not always the same. In India the history of autonomy is conflict-ridden and it demonstrates that non-territorial forms of autonomy are as important as territorial forms of autonomy. It gives political, social and cultural call for individuals and groups. Autonomy has become emblem of group rights and minority rights. Democracy has to be redefined on the principles of autonomy as it cannot proceed without autonomy.

Pradeep Kumar Bose is theoretically concerned with autonomy. He relates autonomy to liberalism (of Kant and Rawls). He suggests that autonomy has individualistic implications. He mentions Foucault who criticises modernity as understood as providing an ideal of autonomy.

Paula Banerjee writes about autonomous women’s movements. Women’s autonomy has always been within the parameters of community rights. She discusses women’s position in the colonial period. And how women’s rights came into the realm of spiritual domain. They have always been treated as part of the community, not as individuals. She derives instances from the Shah Bano case. Moreover Dalit women have been marginalised to such an extent that they are the “Dalits among Dalits”. For women, the question of justice is raised instead of rights.

Samir Kumar Das proposes to locate autonomy as a space that is sought to be created within the realm of the state’s institutions and practices. He is concerned with constitutional and legal provisions of autonomy. A modular form of autonomy takes place in which the demands and aspirations of ethnic community remain unanswered.

Ashutosh Kumar is concerned with federal and constitutional autonomy. Federalism was more of a necessity rather than choice. The Indian Constitution not only recognised diversities but also provided for their representation. These forms of cultural autonomy could not proceed to territorial form. Indian federalism stood for division into States for administrative convenience while the country remained one integrated whole. Indian federalism is asymmetrical. Article 370 has destroyed the State’s (J&K’s) autonomy more than it was meant to protect. Regional autonomy can also be viewed in Kashmir (Ladakh). J&K and the five North-Eastern States believe that there has been a breach of contract by India.

S.B. Ray Chaudhury views autonomy as a contested concept as it has been used to separate as well as to bring people together. His work revolves around identity. He examines the international, legal discourses on autonomy that emerged in the 20th century. His focus is mainly on self-determination, rights of minorities and indigenous people. He fears that dominant discourses on autonomy in this age of globalisation might assimilate different groups of people.

The second group of contributors are concerned with the practices of autonomy. Sanjay Chaturvedi offers geopolitical insights on the issue of autonomy and explains it with a wide range of maps. He uses the term “autonomy of the autonomies” and critically examines various representations and discourses of autonomy about J&K. The experiences of autonomy in regard to J&K have been influenced by two group visions of India’s national identity—secular nationalist and Hindu nationalist. Autonomy is not determined from above; rather it is integral to the process of democratisation.

S.R. Chakrabarty takes a close look at the working of autonomy granted to Darjeeling and narrates it more in terms of a story than the assessment of its working.

Sanjay Barbora talks about the autonomy movement in the North-East which are militant, secessionist and also accommodative. The article focuses on the construction of frontiers, negotiation for political space within these frontiers. He views that autonomy has not delivered justice.

S. Bhaumik and J. Bhattacharya trace the evolution of institutional and administrative structure of autonomy in Tripura and Mizoram. They employ the comparative approach in their essay and examine the differences in the nature of autonomy in these two States.

Ratan Khasnabis talks about decentralisation and recognition of local knowledge in implementing a programme for development. Decentralisation is supposed to enhance democratic values and maximise allocational efficiency. He highlights the complexity of the issue of financial autonomy and maintains that the local bodies can function better if the allocation of resources is proper.

Students of Indian politics in general and State politics in particular would find this volume useful for it not only provides the descriptive analysis of the autonomy movements in different parts of India but more importantly the body of literature in the volume is theoretically anchored exploring the differing meanings of autonomy and the debates that veer around them.

The reviewer is an M.Phil. student, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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