The Sub-National Politics of Punjab

Case Study

Term Paper 2009 25 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: South Asia


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Sub-National Politics of Punjab
2.1 General Information
2.2 Political History
2.3 Debates on Indian Federalism
2.3.1 India’s Federal Design
2.3.2 Unitary or Federal?
2.3.3 Asymmetric or Symmetric?
2.3.4 Devolutional Tendencies
2.4 Centre-Periphery Relations
2.4.1 Between Centre and State
2.4.2 Between Centre and Local Level
2.5. Nature of the Sub-National Political System
2.5.1 Institutional Framework
2.5.2 Sikh Politics

3. Conclusion


Map 1: India - Political Map
Map 2: Punjab - District Map
Map 3: Photograph
Map 4: Nationwide Comparison of Per Capita Income
Table 7: Comparison of Indian states
Table 8: Punjab’s Districts

1. Introduction

The Indian state of Punjab1 is mentioned mostly for the secessionist activities of its Sikh majority, the assassination of Indira Ghandi marking their inglorious peak in 1984. But despite strong Sikh nationalism, Punjab’s sub-political system is comparatively weak. While the region is well off in comparison to other Indian states, a number of political and economic problems persist. By looking at Punjab’s political history and the evolution of Indian federalism, I assess the degree to which these problems can be attributed to flaws in the federal design. In my view, they result from three factors: deliberate constitutional arrangements, especially regarding revenues, over-complexity and underdevelopment of local politics, and the political implications of Punjab’s Sikh heritage.

Finally, some suggestions regarding restructuring of Punjab’s ramified system of local government are presented. However, an overhaul of Punjab’s sub-national politics seems more than unlikely.

2. The Sub-National Politics of Punjab

2.1 General Information

Table 1 - Basic Figures

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Punjab Online, 2009.

Before looking at the political system in detail, it is useful to review Punjab’s geographic, demographic and economic conditions. The state covers an area of 50,362 square kilometres (Table 1). Located in the north-western part of the subcontinent, Punjab shares its capital, Chandigarh, with another state, Haryana (Appendix: Map 1). Its official and principal spoken language is Punjabi. In terms of religion, Hindus are a minority. More than 60 percent of the population are Sikhs (Encyclopaedia Britannica, “EB“, 2008), although they Religion not stated n.a. 0.1% constitute only 1,9 percent of the national population (Table 2). According to a 2001 census, the population of the state is 24,4 million (Table 1). That is an increase of 4 mn in comparison to 1991.

Table 2: Nationwide Religious Distribution

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Bhattacharyya, 2005: 4.

Despite concerted efforts by the regional government to curb birth rates, the yearly rate of growth is still only 1,82 percent. This, however, is not the major cause of concern in demography of the Punjab state. Female foeticide and infanticide has led to a disproportionate female to male ratio of 87,6 to 100 (Government of Punjab, “GP”, 2009).

Punjab’s geography is perfect for agriculture (EB, 2008, see also: Appendix: Map 3). Physiographically, the state can be divided into three parts: the Shiwalik Hills in the northeast, rising up to 3,000 feet high, the undulating foothill zone farther south and the flat tract with fertile alluvial soils, covering the majority of the state’s area. Punjab has an inland subtropical location with a continental climate which is semi-arid to sub humid - Summers are hot and Winters fairly cold with high rainfall, especially in the monsoon season from July to September.

These rich conditions make Punjab the wealthiest Indian state (Table 4, see also Appendix: Map 4). Covering less than 2 percent of its area, the region produces more than 10 percent of India’s foodstuff, including half of the national rice stock and more wheat than all other states combined (EB, 2008).

Table 3 - Punjab Population

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(1 Lakh = 100 000) Source: GP, 2009.

This is mainly attributed to the “Green Revolution”, a series of agricultural reforms in the 1960s. As a result of Punjab’s prosperous farming, 70 percent of the population still lead a rural life, whereas 30 percent live in its fast growing urban areas (Table 3).

However, the structural composition is changing. The agricultural (proper) sector has declined from 26,27 percent to 22,15 percent between 2000 and 2005 (GP, 2008), whereas the second and third sector’s share has grown steadily, mainly due to increases in transport, communication and banking. Nevertheless, unemployment remains a serious concern. As of 2005, 463.000 job seekers were registered (GP, 2008). The main employers are the cotton and silk as well as the metal and machinery industries. A good infrastructure has emerged with 75 percent of the state covered by roads.

The economy has shown a high growth rate of 6,29 percent in 2003-2004 (GP, 2008). Per capita income at current prices has shown an increase of 7,32 percent between 2004 and 2005 only. As Table 4 shows, Punjab ranks high in all economic and infrastructural nationwide comparisons. With 1,52 percent of the national population it creates 3,92 percent of India’s Net State Domestic Product (Appendix: Table 7). There are, however, a number of economic problems in the region. Punjab is highly indebted, thereby representing an anomaly among the Indian states. Despite its high Domestic Product, the region has very high revenue and fiscal deficits (Rao, 2002: 10). The favourable economic indicators must also be taken with caution, as they do not differentiate between the Punjab’ various social strata (Telford, 1992: 976).

Table 4 - Punjab vis-à-vis India

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: GP, 2009.

Rural farmers in particular are facing serious deficit problems. Industrial development is also meagre as Pakistan inherited Punjab’s core industrial region in 1947. Even the agroindustry is underdeveloped. While Punjab owns 23,9 percent of India’s tractors, its capacity for tractor production is only 8 percent (ibid., 980).

2.2 Political History

Punjab’s current situation cannot be explained without looking back at its troubled political history, which was characterized by adverse conditions from its very beginning. Upon being freed from British rule in 1947, Punjab was split between India and Pakistan (EB, 2008). Sikh agitation for a Punjabi-speaking state put pressure on the national Indian government until on 1 November 1966 the then Punjab state was divided on the basis of language, not community, into the Sikh-majority state of Punjab and into the state of Haryana which comprised most of the Hindi-speaking people. However, Sikh demands were not satisfied by this. In the 1970s, the government adopted a policy of deliberate neglect, or “constructive inaction”, hoping that the secessionist movement would burn out (Hardgrave Jr., 1983: 1173). Instead, demands for independence were fuelled by central manipulation of Punjabi politics in the 1980s (Tillin, 2007: 64). Militant Sikh groups campaigned for an autonomous Sikh homeland (‘Khalistan’) with terroristic means. The conflict escalated in 1984, when many Sikh fighters were killed by the Indian army. In retaliation for this so-called “Operation Blue Star”, Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards. Since then, attempts to negotiate settlements with Sikh rebels have failed repeatedly and a violent political climate persists, although the conflict is considered to be overcome today (Zingel, 2004: 4). While the movement has lost ideological coherence and moral purpose (Telford, 1992: 986), it remains a looming threat, particularly in the poorer parts of Punjab.

2.3 Debates on Indian Federalism

The political system of Punjab must be assessed against the backdrop of its wider federal framework. But practical considerations are not the only motivation for an analysis of Indian federalism. The issue is interesting for a number of reasons. It is “unique in nature and tailored according to the specific needs of the country” (Pathak, 2009). India’s federal construction is regarded with worldwide interest because of its size, diversity, and levels of poverty (Tillin, 2007: 46) - in particular by other countries with ethnic variety, such as Canada or Spain. Over one billion people live in India’s 28 states and 7 Union Territories (Bhattacharyya, 2005: 4).

2.3.1 India’s Federal Design

Two processes dominated the creation of India’s federal organization in 1950: “devolution of authority to the provincial governments on the one hand and the integration of the acceding states on the other” (Teng, 1990). However, the power dynamic between regions and central government was not equal. Power laid firmly in the hands of the Constituent Assembly. Its members were not representatives of the states as was the case in Philadelphia in 1787. The mode of making the federation was clearly top-down rather than bottom-up (Bhattacharyya, 2005: 14). As the states failed to form constitutional assemblies of their own, their individual constitutions were drawn out by the national Assembly. The final agreement somehow recognized their political identity, but at the same time consolidated them into India’s political personality. The Indian Constitution considered the provinces to be administrative units of a unitary structure of power (Teng, 1990).

Different explanations are given for the moderate role the provinces were granted. India presented a “highly intricate complex of numerous sub-national identities, which could not be identified with any political boundaries or administrative limits” (Teng, 1990). In 1947, 216 princely states and territories had to be integrated into the Indian state in addition to the former British colonies (Rao and Singh, 2004: 6). Second, “Federalism with a strong centre was inevitable as the framers of the Indian Constitution were aware that there were economic disparities as several areas of India were economically as well as industrially far behind in comparison to others” (Pathak, 2009). While India can therefore be regarded as a federation with strong unitary features, the exact nature of its federal design remains debated.

2.3.2 Unitary or Federal?

According to Pathak, the framers of the Indian Constitution incorporated certain unique features in an attempt to avoid difficulties faced by other federal units like the US or Canada. The right of the central government to intervene in the state affairs in particular has elicited questions as to the nature of Indian federalism. Some commentators regard India as quasi- federal for the fact that its constitution describes it as a “Union of states” (Article 1). Opposed to this, some see it to be unitary as the Indian Constitution does not allow the states to make their own constitutions. Also, the most important legislative competences lie exclusively with the centre. Regarding concurrent competences, the parliament enjoys an overriding authority over the state legislatures (Pathak, 2009). India therefore lends itself for neither of the ideal types to describe territorial relations in a nation-state. It has been suggested to appreciate the uniqueness of India’s federal arrangement. Stepan (in: Tillin, 2007: 58) describes India’s “special type” of federation as a “holding together” (where power has been devolved from a formally fundamentally unitary state) and demos-enabling model, as opposed to a US-style ‘‘coming-together’’, demos-constraining model. This notion is significant for the issue of Punjab nationalism. It explains the provisions granted by the centre in 1966 to redesign the region’s boundaries not as a shift in power toward the periphery, but rather as a means of bringing Punjab closer to the centre by accommodating its linguistic and cultural diversity and therefore calming its secessionist impetus. In a way, Indian federalism serves as a “political equilibrium” (Bhattacharyya, 2005: 2).


1 Not to be confused with the adjacent, equally named region in Pakistan.


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University College Cork – Department of Government
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Title: The Sub-National Politics of Punjab