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Why we should dissolve Puducherry

It makes little sense to continue administering a three pronged entity tied together by a vague “French” cultural identity.

V. Naraynaswamy of Indian National Congress, the now-former Puducherry Chief Minister who lost the trust vote in what is likely action imitated by the BJP.

The V. Naraynaswamy Government of Puducherry officially fell today (22/02/2021), after multiple MLAs resigned from the 33-member Legislative Assembly. This comes after high drama over the supposed defection of the MLAs to BJP as well as the exact status of nominated members of the assembly. Earlier, the administration of the Union Territory (UT) was paralysed more than once because of the constant strife between the Lieutenant Governor (LG) Kiran Bedi and Chief Minister (CM) Narayanswamy of the Congress went head to head. The Grand Experiment of Article 239A that permitted a special representative Assembly that later became the Legislative Assembly of Puducherry ought to be reviewed.

The UT of Puducherry is an amorphous entity spread across 3 States of the Indian Union in 4 parts – Puducherry proper, Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe.

Combined, the UT can barely pass as a district in any of the three states – Kerala, Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh – it is surrounded by.

This entity exists not due to any geographical or cultural reason, but because the French State held on to a few trading posts as it lost the rest of its territory to the British in India. Of the five territories it held on, Chandernagore, a town in West Bengal was the first to be integrated after a referendum in 1949, which allowed the integration of the town from the French Republic to the Indian Republic. The State was administered directly by the Union before being integrated into the State of West Bengal by 1954. Meanwhile, Puducherry too moved towards integration, with a joint statement being issued in 1954 before the state was formally transferred to India in 1962 and the four remaining French Enclaves were merged to form the Union Territory of Puducherry.

These four regions, now four districts of the UT, are geographically separated, with the Tamil dominated and populous districts of Puducherry and Karaikal determining politics, and both Yanam and Mahe – the two separate geographical entities hundreds of kilometers away, being marginal players due to population. The reason for the UT’s continued existence is basically administrative lethargy – its boundaries were drawn by the vestiges of colonialism. The UT can never be admitted into the Union as a State: it is too small and its geography atrocious. As a UT, it will face more hassles because the administrative structure requires closer cooperation between the Executive of the UT and the Union than between that of a State and the Union. Which means the situation in the past five years, when an unfriendly LG and CM can lead to administrative problems much faster than between a State Chief Minister and Governor. This is inevitably going to repeat.

The provisions of the Constitution under Article 239A and 239B attempt to clearly demarcate the powers, but this along with the Union Territories Act of 1963, can do only so much when the highest elected representative – the Chief Minister, is not a full Chief Minister and the LG cannot administer single handedly. Co-operation, especially in a democracy is not an easy thing as entities tend to combat. Rather than let the administrative hassles be revived, it makes more sense for the UT to be dissolved and integrated into the neighboring states.

The UT’s unique “French” cultural identity is a vague enough sentiment: the residents are not French – they are Indians, living in India who speak Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam. Nobody is going to destroy the closely manicured colonial streets when it is reintegrated. Tracing the nature of other UTs, we can make out an even more clearer case to #DissolvePuducherry.

The provision of Union Territories sought to replace the Chief Commissioner’s provinces in British India. The provision under Article 239 was used as a transitory provision for many North Eastern States or new territories that were to be integrated into the Indian Union. Today, among the Union Territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakah are both undergoing a substantial political rejig following the scrapping of Article 370, Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar both geographically isolated, Chandigarh serving as the capital of two states and Delhi as the Union Capital have distinct reasons for their existence.

The only other UT missing from this list is Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, where two separate UTs before being merged into the monster acronym it is right now (DNHDD?). This merger was to reduce the duplication of services and reduce the cost of administration. In my honest opinion, their continued existence is even more of a historical accident that ought to be rectified by amalgamating them into Maharashtra and Gujarat. Their continued existence serves no purpose than to benefit tax saving as state taxes are not applicable in these UTs.

Puducherry as an entity too has no reason for its continued existence in the broad picture. It serves no purpose to the Indian Union. If the ideal of decentralization was sought to be empowered by providing for an Assembly and Council of Ministers, why not integrate the constituent parts into Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh? Rather than being caught halfway between being centrally administered or a fully fledged state (either of those two being more sensible) why not integrate into the larger federal entity that colonialism separated geographies and people from?

The cultural argument for Puducherry to continue as a UT is specious – after all, the region was not so distinctly separated from the three states it borders. The integration of these regions would provide better administration and a more stable government in the long run.

The immediate barrier could be the economic consequences that result from the integration, to which a 25 or 30 year tax break or concession can be provided. The next barrier would be the 1956 treaty formalizing the handover of Puducherry between India and France. The treaty states in Article II:

The Establishments will keep the benefit of the special administrative status which was in force prior to 1 November, 1954. Any constitutional changes in this status which may be made subsequently shall be made after ascertaining the wishes of the people. Treaty establishing De Jure Cession of French Establishments in India, 1956.

The establishments is what we now know as the UT of Puducherry. However, the last referendum was conducted in 1954 to ascertain whether the residents wished to integrate with India. The Indian Constitution has no provision for a referendum, so this can be soundly ignored. As a transitory provision, the constituent districts can function as ‘Special Administrative Zones’ under the States until fully integrated over the 20-30 year period mentioned earlier.

So why not #DissolvePuduccherry? We should not let the remainders of colonialism push us to hold on to an entity without any clear purpose and crazy borders.


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