The Sunday Story New States are acceptable as long as they do not displace people
There is little to distinguish sub-nationalist movements from nationalist ones, other than the historical circumstances of their origins and the self-limiting nature of their political aims.
Whether it is in the promotion of an idea of shared history and territory, or in the practice of identity politics based on language, ethnicity, and religion, sub-nationalists mimic nationalists in every sense. But while nationalist movements are glorified for their success in the anti-colonial struggle, sub-nationalists are often derided for their divisive politics, and for latent secessionism.
In India, the reorganisation of States on linguistic lines after Independence was a defining moment. Unlike Partition on the basis of religion, the reorganisation of States saw no large-scale dislocation of people. No surprise: people speaking a common language, as is only natural, live in geographically contiguous areas.
The agitation for a Telugu-speaking State, independent India’s first sub-nationalist movement, was instrumental in the creation of new states in 1956; language was quick to gain acceptance as the basis for a people to demand the right to a sort of “limited” political self-determination within the confines of the Indian nation-state.
The clamour for new states was never likely to end with 1956. But the most significant reorganisation since then had to wait till 2000 when Chhattisgarh (from Madhya Pradesh), Jharkhand (from Bihar), and Uttaranchal, now Uttarakhand (from Uttar Pradesh) became separate states. It was not language, but tribal, forest and hill region identities that fuelled these demands, helped along by the political calculations of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which headed the government at the Centre.
Contrary to the belief that dividing big states makes for administrative ease, Uttarakhand took away only a small, north-western part of Uttar Pradesh, which is still the largest state by far. A sense of alienation aided the feeling of social and cultural distinctiveness of the people in these areas. In Jharkhand, rich in minerals, those who pushed for statehood stressed on the lopsided development in Bihar -- the tribal areas contributed the highest share of the State’s revenues but received the least funding.
Telangana’s distinctiveness lies in its political history as a part of the Hyderabad State under the Nizam, but the statehood demand, like in Jharkhand, arose from a perception of lopsided development.
The decision of the Congress to back the case for a Telangana state has predictably given an impetus to statehood demands in other parts of the country. India’s northeast is a mix of peoples belonging to different ethnic groups, and the strongest agitations for new states have come from this region. Gorkhaland and Bodoland are only the most prominent of long-pending demands for separate states. Many of the states in the northeast are small, both geographically and in terms of population, and their territorial claims overlap, but this does not seem to be a damper on those wanting statehood for their regions. Economic viability is the main argument against smaller states. If smaller states do not have avenues for requisite revenue generation, and cannot meet the costs of administration, then, the argument goes, they are not economically viable. But this line of reasoning can hardly convince those who want a state “of their own” on the basis of their ethnic identity. After all, such arguments of political and economic instability were used against nationalist movements by the colonialists too.
Theoretically, demands for new states are as valid as any nationalist project. Or, to put it another way, any nationalist movement is only as legitimate or valid as a sub-nationalist or regional movement for a separate state. What is really important, then, is that the new states should not result in internal displacement of people. Modern democratic nation-states are based on the presumption of the right of people to self-determination. But the right to self-determination, whether as a nation-state or as a more limited state within a nation, does not flow from a people’s assertion of their ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural, or any other social identity. The political legitimacy of a people’s right to self-determination, in whatever form, comes from universal, inalienable human rights. And, almost by definition, it is acceptable only so long as it does not infringe on the similar right of another people.
Keywords: The Sunday Story, states formation, statehood demands, Telangana issue, A.P. bifurcation, nationalist movements, self-determination, right to self-determination, smaller states, Indian Constitution