Half a century ago, on December 19, 1952, to be precise, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced the formation of a new State of Andhra. It was separated from an unwieldy and composite Madras State, which then comprised people speaking Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam, along with a few other languages. Comprising mostly Telugu-speaking people, Andhra State came into being on October 1, 1953, with Kurnool as its capital. This is a historic date since this was the first-born among Indian States in the era of linguistic reorganisation.

It did not come without a struggle and a final price: Nehru’s announcement came three days after Potti Sreeramulu, Gandhian and freedom-fighter, who went on an indefinite fast in Madras demanding formation of a State for the Telugu-speaking people, died on the 59th day. Three years later, on November 1, 1956, the Telangana region with Telugu-speaking people, which was under the control of the princely state of Hyderabad, was brought into the State of Andhra, which was renamed Andhra Pradesh. Younger siblings such as Kerala and Karnataka followed. Over the years, the formation of States based on the linguistic principle proved, by and large, a big success. Among other things, they provided an opportunity for Indian languages to grow independently and for their art and literature to enrich themselves with strong state support.

A concept under challenge

Today, the very concept of linguistic organisation of States has come under question and even under challenge. It has suffered a setback in several parts of the country, with factors other than language becoming a decisive force for separation into new units. In North India, some States have already been bi-furcated or tri-furcated in response to popular demands, not always for just reasons, using criteria other than language. This did not happen in the South. But there has been one longstanding issue defying all attempts at resolution, the status of Andhra Pradesh’s Telangana region comprising 10 districts. The revival of the agitation for a separate Telangana State, with Hyderabad as its capital, and the response by the central government have taken Andhra Pradesh to the brink.

Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s late-night announcement on December 9 that the process of forming the State of Telangana would be initiated and an appropriate resolution moved in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly has profoundly altered the political situation in all three regions of the State. The central government’s decision followed the reported deterioration in the health of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi president, K. Chandrasekhara Rao, whose fast demanding a separate State of Telangana had entered the 11th day. The announcement has triggered demonstrations and protests, violent in some areas, disrupting peace and normal life in several parts of the State.

Understandably, the Union government’s announcement was criticised by elected political representatives of the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions as “hasty”, “based on wrong threat perceptions,” and so on. Twenty Ministers are reportedly planning to resign and 138 members of the Assembly have submitted their resignations to the Speaker, apparently with the intention of bringing pressure on the Centre.

It is not yet clear whether Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assurance to a group of Members of Parliament from Andhra and Rayalaseema regions that “nothing will be done in haste” will arrest the cascading effect of the ongoing violent protests. This may lead to fresh thinking on the issue and, hopefully, help shape an alternative solution that avoids breaking up the State. Of course, such a solution needs to give top priority to alleviating the genuine grievances of the people of Telangana, the social and economic backwardness of the region, and the discrimination they complain of especially in the fields of employment and education.

What is intriguing, however, is how the ruling dispensation in New Delhi came out with the big announcement when even the supporters of the Telangana movement did not expect it. It bore all the signs of a panic-driven response from the Centre, a loss of political nerve. But how did it happen?

Media became a player

Some political observers assign a considerable share of the blame on influential sections of the broadcast and print media. Apart from the general complaint of sensationalising the agitation-related incidents with a view to sustaining the viewer or reader interest, there has been the charge that a section of the media developed vested interests in support of, or against, the agitation. In other words, they became players in the political drama. “To some extent they were able to influence the course of events that should otherwise have been left to the political parties or the agitators,” commented an independent observer. Some others said that there was clear exaggeration in news television’s portrayal of the initial phase of the Telangana agitation.

A senior journalist took exception to the repeated telecast of the clips of the police lathi-charge on the agitators. One TV channel reportedly showed in slow motion the lathi blows on a university student. As serious was the way some channels sensationalised the deterioration in the health of the fasting leader, making it out to be much worse than it actually was. One channel even went to the extent of reporting that the fasting leader was slipping into a coma, which was completely untrue. This only strengthens the impression that on sensitive issues, under the pressure of emotionally driven mass movements, factuality and reporting norms relating to proportion and context are being sacrificed by influential sections of the Indian media.

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