October 24, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

The recipe for chaos

I had distinctly mixed feelings when I tuned in to watch the India-West Indies Test at Chennai on the morning of Friday, October 18. I was sorry to see an exciting match being postponed by several hours. But there was also a sense of relief at the thought that showers heavy enough to cause such disruption might also serve to fill up reservoirs and to offer relief to thousands of farmers. (Especially given that the rains seemed all set to continue for a couple of days --- as indeed happened.)

Yet, even if the immediate crisis on the sharing of Cauvery waters is over --- and I am none too certain that this is indeed the case --- another dilemma is just raising its ugly head. And this is a problem whose ramifications extend well beyond Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Very simply, the squabble between the two states has raised questions that have cast the entire federal concept into doubt.

Surprisingly, the culprit is Karnataka. I write 'surprisingly' because there is no other major state that has been so 'nationalistic' in its approach come election time. To succeed in Karnataka, whether in the assembly or in the Lok Sabha polls, it seems essential to be either a national party, or allied to one. Even figures of the stature of D Devraj Urs fell by the side when they left the mother party to strike a regional tone. How strange, then, that it is the same Karnataka that is shaking the very roots of the Indian Union!

To explain that, let me present you with a hypothetical case. Assume that the monsoon is equally desultory next year. In that event, it is safe to conjecture that Karnataka and Tamil Nadu shall once again be at loggerheads. So, who then shall arbitrate between the two squabbling states, and deliver judgment on an equitable distribution of water? The Supreme Court? The Cauvery River Authority? The problem is that Karnataka has unilaterally decided to disobey the orders of each of those tribunals.

So, what happens if other states decide to follow suit, deciding which orders to follow and which to disregard at their own fancy? That is a recipe for chaos, plain and simple. The Supreme Court is one of the few institutions that still commands respect across India. How can Karnataka get away with open defiance of an order from the apex court?

The Supreme Court is 'supreme' only because its judgments are supposed to be the last word on any given issue. If parties to a trial are free to pick and choose which judgments they shall obey, the legitimacy of every pronouncement immediately becomes suspect. Today, it is just Karnataka, tomorrow it could be another sensitive issue where the party at the losing end of a judgment simply refuses to obey citing its own interests.

To pick up another hypothetical case, what happens if one of the aggrieved parties in, say, the Ayodhya dispute denies the right of the Supreme Court to decide on matters of faith? If Karnataka can get away with defiance, can you deny the same privilege to others?

These questions are not lost on the leadership of Karnataka. S M Krishna is one of the most intelligent and dynamic chief ministers in India just now. Having taken the step of disobeying the Supreme Court, I think he sensed that matters were moving out of control. That, I believe, is why he staged his padayatra. It served to assure the farmers of Karnataka that their chief minister was on their side, thus cooling tempers. It is also to the chief minister's credit that he has privately asked cable operators to lift their ban on Tamil programmes. All this is in stark contrast to the way in which the S Bangarappa ministry allowed the Cauvery issue to play havoc with emotions 10 years ago.

Nevertheless, despite the chief minister's intervention, the larger issue remains unresolved. I cannot help wondering why Karnataka did not even try to resolve the Cauvery issue in the courts. It was well within Karnataka's power to file a petition or two asking the Supreme Court to take another look. Was it really necessary to defy their Lordships, and then to compound this error by turning down a request from the prime minister to obey the ruling of the Cauvery River Authority?

I am sure that Karnataka has a genuine grievance with the division of waters as it stands today. It is quite possible, as the state claims, that the original agreement between the British presidency of Madras and the princely state of Mysore was skewed in favour of the former. But a party to a dispute cannot be the judge as well, and an eleventh-hour, unilateral non-implementation of a Supreme Court order is certainly not the answer.

After all, it is now open to Tamil Nadu to take 'retaliatory' action. If Karnataka prevents water from flowing into the down-river state, then what prevents Tamil Nadu from stopping electricity supply to Karnataka? If Tamilians are attacked in Bangalore, then, as one Tamil leader said with a nasty undertone to his voice, "There is no shortage of Udupi restaurants in Tamil Nadu."

Up to now, it is to the credit of J Jayalalithaa and S M Krishna that they have kept their people under control, but it is anybody's guess as to how long this happy situation shall continue.

Karnataka in general, and Bangalore specifically, enjoys one of the most open, least chauvinistic environments in India. The state owes it to itself to keep that reputation intact.

The Cauvery Water Dispute: Complete coverage

T V R Shenoy

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