New Delhi Notes: Attending darbar, reflecting on federalism in large states

October 6, 2009

This is a series of small travel notes, containing observations and reflections on broader issues. This one is about the everyday dimensions of federalism in a continental state.


There is a story about the 17th century Maratha king, Shivaji, that children growing up in Maharashtra hear often. After years of adversarial relations, Shivaji decided to visit the Mughal darbar (court) with his son. He was received not as an equal adversary but as a lowly tributary, made to stand in the back of the courtiers’ ranks. His protest was met with arrest. However, he is said to have escaped from Agra fort in a basket of sweets, only to expand and consolidate his control over large swathes of the Deccan. Decades ago, as a Mumbaikar/ Bombayite working in Delhi, this story had special resonance as one navigated Delhi’s many protocols and hierarchies.

Delhi is a very beautiful city. There are seven cities here, the newest of which was built by Lutyens. In every season of the year, there is something to admire and enjoy here. In recent decades, India’s capital has also become very cosmopolitan and that has added a special quality to the Delhi experience: visit Delhi, check out India, you might say.

Coming from India’s southernmost metro to this city, this difference is particularly striking. Even more than it used to be when one visited from Mumbai (then Bombay). For a port-city in a region with an aggressive internationalist history, Chennai’s preoccupations remain very local—language politics, identity politics, development concerns (infrastructural growth, employment), water and its foreign policy concerns are first focused on the global Tamil diaspora. Delhi’s politics are an instrument for furthering Chennai’s autonomy and Delhi’s concerns with Pakistan and China are of great concern in Chennai, but in a cerebral register quite different from the emotional one where Sri Lanka policy is debated. The Chennai-ite could be a foreign tourist in Delhi; language, food, culture and worldview are so different in the two cities.

The Chennai-Delhi, Tamil Nadu-India relationship has changed beyond recognition over the decades. Language politics—resistance to the imposition of a single national language—may be said to be at the heart of it, and the Tamil Nadu leadership’s sustained advocacy of systemic change along the secession-separatism-autonomy continuum are an expression of this resistance. Between 1947-1963, secession was an important demand in the Dravidian movement’s political platform, and their leader spent his time in Parliament raising related issues over and over again. Circumstances prompted a shift in strategy, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam contested and won state assembly elections in 1967. Dravidian parties have held power in Tamil Nadu ever since, in the forefront nationally on two ongoing debates: greater autonomy for states in the Indian federation and Sri Lanka policy. Since 1996, Dravidian parties have been an important part of ruling coalitions at the centre, leveraging their Parliamentary presence to further their political concerns.

But even if it is not impossible, the journey from secession to insider-status, the journey of the ordinary traveller from inability to communicate to feeling at home, is more arduous on both levels than a blog-post can indicate. The Tamil Nadu-India relationship suggests that not merely federalism, but flexible federalism—where there is a lot of ‘space’ or ‘give’ in the fabric—are what it takes. This is a constant negotiation, which is why autonomy demands and debates never go out of fashion in large states.

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