Mapping the states of India

Statehood for Meghalaya

Initially envisaged as an autonomous district, Meghalaya’s achieved statehood after a series of long, contentious and ultimately unsuccessful negotiations between the APHLC and the Assam Congress

Meghalaya became a state along with Manipur and Tripura in 1972. However, the major difference lay in the fact that both Manipur and Tripura made the transition from being princely states to Chief Commissioner's provinces in 1949 to Union Territories in 1963 and full-fledged states in 1972, while for Meghalaya it was the fulfilment of a longstanding demand, first of an effective Autonomous District Council within Assam, but the insistence on statehood after the attempts to impose Assamese throughout the state. The story of Meghalaya is also intertwined with the lost glory of Shillong, as well as the shrinking territorial contours of Assam.

The creation of Meghalaya is best expressed by Swarna Rajagopalan in her 'Report on Peace accords in Northeast India': 'the formation of Meghalaya began as a demand for a sable hill state in the Northeast but was replaced by demands from several groups for their own states, and the All-Party Hill Leaders Conference focused its attention on the Khasi-Jaintia and Garo Hills, which already had autonomous councils provided by the sixth schedule. A proposal to create a hill areas committee in the Assam state Assembly quickly yielded to the demand by the residents of Khasi-Jaintia and Garo Hills for statehood for Meghalaya when the Assamese language was adopted statewide as a medium of instruction'.

Within the first decade of Independence, the ethnic and linguistic assertions sought the reorganisation of states, and the representatives of all the hill tribes of Assam met in Tura in 1954 to prepare a memorandum for the States Reorganization Commission demanding a Hill state as 'the autonomy granted by the Sixth Schedule was not real and substantial'. The structure of the proposed hill state included a legislative assembly, a council of ministers and a governor who would also be responsible for the administration of NEFA, which ultimately should be a part of the hill state, but the hill state and the residual state of Assam should have a common high court, public service commission, Accountant General, and in the interim, Shillong as the common capital. The counter-proposal from Assam was a state for the entire eastern Himalayas, including Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri Cooch Behar and NEFA!

It must be mentioned that in the early 50s, most of the legislators from the hill districts were pressing for greater autonomy for the Councils under the Sixth Schedule, elected chairmen for all the district councils, representation from the Councils in the Cabinet, limitations on the veto powers of the Governor, and last but not the least, the control of Shillong Municipality by the Khasi Hills Council. The wish to control Shillong was also at the root of the contest between the State of Assam, and the protagonists of Khasi assertion, especially when some parts of Shillong were named after plainsmen.

By 1962, the APHLC had become a political party, contested elections, and had outstanding success in all the autonomous districts except Mikhir and North Cachar districts. However discussions with PM Nehru were inconclusive and his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri appointed the Pataskar Commission, whose recommendations stopped short of a separate state, and were hence rejected by the APHLC. By 1967, the Centre proposed a reorganisation of Assam based on a federal structure — two units, one for the hills and the other for the plains — with equal status, but common institutions like the high court and the public service commission, et al. However, this did not work because of the intransigence of the Assam Congress leadership (BP Chaliha and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad) who convinced the CWC leadership, including Morarji Desai against this 'dismemberment of Assam'. However, a Congress–style compromise was undertaken. Everything except law and order, state highways, irrigation, power, and control over Shillong municipality and cantonment was transferred to the hill sub-state of Assam. The Assam legislature would have no veto power over the transferred subjects. The idea of a North-East Council under the chairmanship of the Governor of Assam was also mooted at this time — and all the chief ministers of the NE states — Assam, Nagaland and the new autonomous states would be members along with the Chief Commissioner and Chief Ministers of the UTs of Manipur and Tripura.

Writing in the 'Asian Survey' (April, 1969) Dilip Mukerjee, a journalist with 'The Statesman' captured the mood of the time 'the result of a compromise backed by a consensus among the major national political parties is to persuade Indian opinion to launch a new constitutional experiment — for the immediate benefit of Assam, and possibly of long term significance of other parts of India as well'.

However, this was spoken too soon. No sooner had the ink dried on the hill sub-state of Assam, both sides — the leadership of the Assam Congress and APHLC — found that years of distrust could not be bridged, and barbs and brickbats between the two, especially over the handling of law and order and the postings of district officials led to ego clashes — and finally the demand of complete statehood for Meghalaya was conceded and the State came into existence on April 2, 1972, with Captain William A Sangma as the first Chief Minister of the State.

The writer is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun

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