Promise of Autonomy & Abuse of Power: Why Delhi Demands Statehood

Arvind Kejriwal recently announced that his AAP govt in Delhi is going to renew its demand for statehood.

7 min read

(This is the first part of a two-part series on demand for Delhi’s statehood. Read Part 2 here.)

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal recently announced that his government is going to renew its demand for ‘Statehood for Delhi’. It was one of AAP’s electoral promises in the run-up to the 2015 Delhi Assembly Elections, which saw tangible action being taken when AAP passed the ‘State of Delhi Bill’ in 2016. Unfortunately, Kejriwal’s efforts were undone due to the non-compliance of the BJP-led Central Government.

Let us take a step back to understand the roots of this issue.


How Delhi Came Into Being

Since the time it was founded by the Tunwar Rajputs to becoming the vibrant capital centre of Illtutmish’s Empire in 1220 AD, to becoming a ‘suba’ during Akbar’s reign, Delhi has had a long, tumultuous and often bloody history.

In 1803, after the ‘Battle of Delhi’ at Patparganj, Delhi, along with the neighbouring districts of Hisar, Rohtak, Gurgaon and Karnal, was constituted as one unit and put under the official charge of an officer designated as the ‘Chief Commissioner of Delhi’.

However, things were not always so smooth. With the changing tides and emboldened desire for independence, Delhi became the hotspot for the ‘Siege of Delhi’ during the 1857 revolt, and was soon annexed to be an outlying territory of Punjab, robbing Delhi of whatever little autonomy it earlier had.

Eventually, when the capital of India shifted from (now erstwhile) Calcutta to Delhi, in 1911, Delhi was again constituted as a separate province to be governed by a designated Chief Commissioner. Additionally, as per the provisos of the Government of India Act, 1919 and 1935, Delhi continued to be a central government-administered province.

In the run-up to Independence in 1947, the Sitaramayya Committee was constituted to deliberate and decide the changes required in both the constitutional and administrative processes and structures that existed in provinces headed by a Chief Commissioner.

The raison d’être behind the constitution of the Sitaramayya Committee was the impediment in the development and governance of Delhi owing to a lack of coordination among various central government departments and bureaucratic mismatch in anticipating the needs and requirements of the people of Delhi.

A Chimera of Delhi’s Autonomy

Even though the Sitaramayya Committee appreciated and recognised the fact that “… the people of Delhi (sic) should not be deprived of the right of self-government enjoyed by the rest of their countrymen…”, it nevertheless chose a conservative approach by deciding that Delhi, along with the provinces of Ajmer-Merwara-Kekri and Coorg would function under the aegis of a Lieutenant Governor (L-G) appointed by the President of the Indian Union, while the provinces would be administered by a Council of Ministers.

The Constitution’s drafting committee took an almost similar view and in the draft constitution, tabled in 1948, divided the aforementioned provinces into two distinct categories: the first category had Andaman and Nicobar Islands to be governed through the erstwhile institution of the Chief Commissioner, and the second category had the other provinces, including Delhi, where the transaction of governance would be done under the aegis of the President who would act on the aid and advice of a council of ministers via the office of the L-G.

After heated debates over this issue – a particularly memorable one between Lala Deshbandhu Gupta (a champion of the Delhi statehood cause) and the members of the Constitution Drafting Committee – in the constituent assembly, in its final form, the Constitution of India (1950) constituted four categories of states in the First Schedule – Part A, B, C and D.

All provinces under the rule of a presidential Chief Commissioner, barring Andaman and Nicobar Islands, were in Part C.

Subsequently, the ‘Government of Part ‘C’ states Act, 1951’ was enacted and provided for a Legislative Assembly in Delhi which would, as per Section 21, have the power to make laws for Delhi on all matters in the State and Concurrent Lists of the Seventh Schedule except matters pertaining to (a) public order and police (b) municipal services like water, drainage, electricity, transport (c) land (d) jurisdiction of courts. This proviso was met with much discontent by the people of Delhi as it was clearly just a chimera of granting autonomy to Delhi while vesting real power in the hands of the Centre.


Jan Sangh’s Opposition to Demand for Statehood

The then central government, meanwhile, vigorously defended its stance on the predicate that “…Delhi occupies a very peculiar position and as a capital city it is necessary that the federal government have unfettered powers…” This logic unfortunately did not hold much water with the aggrieved citizens of Delhi.

So, in 1952, a directly elected legislative assembly, led by Delhi’s first Chief Minister and a strong votary of statehood for Delhi – Chaudhary Brahm Prakash – came into existence. But it was short-lived. Soon after the constitution of the State Reorganization Commission (SRC), in 1953, and the consequent ‘States Reorganisation Act, 1956’, Section 21 of the ‘Government of Part ‘C’ States Act, 1951 was rescinded, and the experiment of having a directly elected legislature died a premature death in all of 4 years.

Instead of categories of states and provinces, as per the recommendations of SRC, we had States and Union Territories (UTs) with Delhi occupying a place in the latter.

And instead of a legislative assembly of elected public representatives, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi was constituted in 1958 and entrusted with the mandate to look after provision of essential services in Delhi and liaise with multiple government departments at the Centre.

At that time, an important political player in Delhi politics – Jan Sangh (earlier avatar of modern day BJP) – fervently advocated the SRC’s recommendation to deny statehood to Delhi.

Jan Sangh infamously remarked that “… granting full statehood to Delhi…would be detrimental to the country’s interest as a whole…”


Prabhu Committee’s Recommendations for Local Governance in Delhi

Till 1956, Delhi was considered to be a state, albeit one to be governed through a council of ministers and a presidential nominee – the chief administrator. This was the intention of the Constitution, as a perfunctory perusal of the constituent assembly debate betrays the fact that Delhi was meant to be a separate state with its own government where the central government would enjoy limited power and jurisdiction. It was only after the Seventh Amendment Act, 1956, that Delhi was relegated to the lowly and unfair status of a Union Territory.

Recognising that the will of the people needed to be represented, the Central Government, through the Delhi Administration Act (1966), constituted the Metropolitan Council of Delhi with 56 elected members who had the right to debate and recommend actions subject to approval by the Parliament and the Central Government.

Eventually, the Prabhu Committee, in 1975, studied in detail the question of Delhi’s statehood, and came up with a series of excellent recommendations by way of which the people of Delhi would have a greater say in matters of administration.

Some key recommendations sought to enhance delegation of power – administrative and financial – to the local Delhi Government, recommended a council of ministers and provided solutions for avoiding multiplicity of authorities, which had plagued Delhi for the past 50 years.

However, little action was taken on these recommendations owing to the turbulent and political atmosphere at the Centre which saw the premature dissolution of the Janta Party government in 1979.


Allowing Delhi to Retain UT Status a Huge Mistake

The matter of resolving Delhi’s peculiar status was again revived in 1987, mostly at the insistence of a politically beleaguered Delhi Congress Unit, when the Rajiv Gandhi-led government at the Centre constituted the ‘Committee on Reorganisation of Delhi Set-Up’.

The said committee made some scathing remarks on the justice (or lack of it) meted out to Delhi by successive governments: “…the Metropolitan Council is nothing more than a debating society…”; “…the citizens of Delhi had been denied the elementary democratic right of deciding what laws should be made for them…”; “…bureaucrats were not answerable to the elected members of the Metropolitan Council, thus rendering Delhi to be an outpost of slow and inefficient bureaucratic rule…” et al.

The committee also summarily rejected the inherently flawed suggestion that Delhi needed to be ruled directly by the Centre as it was the Capital. The committee then proceeded to recommend statehood for Delhi.

But it grievously erred when it recommended that Delhi still retain its status as a Union Territory for constitutional purposes. This created scope for the central government and the parliament to abuse their superiority and have overriding veto power over the potential elected state government.


Abuse of Power By Consecutive L-Gs

To enact the findings of this committee, the Constitution (74th amendment) Bill, 1991 was passed by both houses of the parliament in December 1991 and led to the insertion of Article 239AA and 239AB which lay down the details of how the new ‘National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi’ would be governed and the constitution of the legislative assembly thereof.

A particularly contentious clause – Clause (4) of Article 239AA – needs to be discussed here. Clause (4) laid down the rules for cabinet formation and stated that he L-G was supposed to act on the aid and advice of the Chief Minister and his council of ministers.

However, in case of a difference of opinion between the L-G and the cabinet, the L-G would refer the matter to the President for final decision and pending the President’s decision, the L-G was granted autonomy, in urgent and critical cases, to take decisions per his own volition, even if they differed from the decisions of the elected cabinet. Clause (4) was clearly ill-conceived in that it reversed the cardinal principal of a parliamentary democracy like India where the institution of L-G was supposed to be the constitutional figurehead and not the decision-maker.

Clause (4) of Article 239AA has ever since been abused by multiple L-Gs and has been responsible for continuous political skirmishes between the central and the state government.

(Pranav Jain works with the AAP and Delhi Government on key issues. He can be reached on Twitter at @pranavj142. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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