Advocates of smaller states have a robust case. India should look for further reorganisation as it no longer needs to fear about the country’s unity
I recently came across some fascinating news reports, dating from the year 1914, on the then growing demand for a separate state for Telugu speakers. In towns such as Guntur, Nellore and Vijayawada (known at the time as Bezwada), many meetings were held, asking for a separation of Telugu-speaking districts from Madras Presidency, with areas from the Nizam’s Dominions being added on later when conditions permitted.
Tamils on Telugus
The Tamil intelligentsia did not take kindly to this movement for an ‘Andhra desa’. Thus, in its issue of 6th June 1914, Swadesamitran, a widely circulated newspaper published out of Madras, wrote disparagingly of a conference in Guntur which claimed that Tamil domination blocked the progress of the Andhras. The Andhras, it was argued here, needed to break free of the Tamils to realise their hopes and ambitions.
Swadesamitran said it could not “understand the rationale of this argument. If Tamilians are forward in education, etc., their company can only infuse a spirit of emulation in the minds of the Andhras. How can it impede the progress of the latter? The Andhras are not a set of uncivilised barbarians. They are an intelligent community with an ancient civilisation and the example of the Tamilians is bound to create in them new desires and aspirations. This is exactly what is happening. The present feeling among the Andhras that they have not been progressing much, and their demand for a separate province and equal privileges with the Tamilians indicate only this new desire and aspiration. We are at a loss to understand the meaning of their demand that they should be separated from the Tamilians. Is it that they do not want the Tamilians to step into their portion of the country? The patriotic leaders of the country are striving their best to do away with the distinction of caste and creed in India, which prevents the union of the people and impedes the progress. It is therefore regrettable that the Andhras should try to separate from others and form an independent community.”
Despite Tamil scepticism, the movement for a separate state of Telugu speakers persisted. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Congress leaders from the Andhra districts raised the demand at meetings of the party. Within the Congress, these Andhrawallahs had one strong ally — Mahatma Gandhi, who early on, recognised the importance of linguistic states — and several strong opponents, such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, who worried that such demands would weaken the unity of the nation-in-the-making. Already, by the 1930s, Muslim intellectuals had begun moving away from the Congress, finding refuge instead in a newly revived Muslim League, now headed by the brilliant Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Renewed demand for separate state
The demand for a separate Muslim state gathered pace, and eventually resulted in the creation of Pakistan. However, once India gained its independence, the Andhra speakers renewed their demand for the reconfiguration of provincial boundaries to create compact units whose populations spoke the same language. But Nehru and Patel were worried that (as with the Muslim League and Pakistan) separate provinces could become the launching pad for separate nations.
Meanwhile Gandhi died, removing from the scene the most influential non-Andhra supporter of Andhra Pradesh. The Congress high command now thought that the demand would slowly ebb away. Instead, it intensified, with protest meetings being held all across the Madras Presidency.
In October 1952, a veteran Congressman named Potti Sriramulu went on a fast demanding the immediate constitution of an Andhra State. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, C. Rajagopalachari, and the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, both ignored him. But Sriramulu was undeterred. He fasted, and fasted, dying during the night of 15/16 December after 56 days without food. His martyrdom provoked widespread public anger, with hartals and dharnas held across the Telugu country, and demonstrators attacking and burning government offices and railway stations.
Unnerved by the scale of the protests, and the intensity of the anger, Nehru and Rajaji capitulated. An Andhra State was formed in 1953, provoking Kannada, Marathi, and Malayalam speakers all to demand separate states of their own. A States Reorganisation Commission was formed, which recommended the constitution of linguistic states.
Unity and linguistic states
I have long held that the creation of linguistic states has safeguarded the unity of India. Pakistan was divided, and Sri Lanka subject to a protracted civil war, because Bengali speakers in the one case and Tamil speakers in the other were refused the autonomy and dignity they wanted and deserved. On the other hand, the fact that in India citizens are free to educate and administer themselves in their own language has created a feeling of comfort and security.
Linguistic states were crucial at one stage of Indian history, but have they now outlived their usefulness? In north Karnataka, in the inland districts of Andhra Pradesh and of Maharashtra, and in the hilly districts of northern Bengal — in all these places there are vigorous movements calling for separation from the parent province. Are these movements legitimate, and will they persist? Or are they spurious and hence to be disregarded?
Of all these struggles for separate states, the movement for Telangana is the oldest as well as the most intense. When Andhra Pradesh was constituted, the residents of these inland districts, formerly under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad, worried that they would be dominated by the more prosperous and educated parts of the State, which were along the coast, and previously part of the British-ruled Madras Presidency. The inlanders thus asked for special safeguards, and, when these were not granted, launched a major social movement in the year 1969, demanding a separate state of Telangana. Ever since, the demand has been persistently raised, with varying levels of intensity — but it has never gone away.
The leaders and opinion-makers of coastal Andhra do not wish to see their state broken in two. The rhetoric they use in opposing the Telangana movement is strikingly similar to that used by the Tamils, back in 1914 or thereabouts, when they asked the Andhras not to ask for a separate state of their own. Why break up a unity once achieved, they say. And if the residents of Telangana want to progress, does not living with the more advanced residents of coastal Andhra give them the necessary impetus to do so?
Politics of Telangana
It took 40 (and more) years for the Telugu speakers of Madras Presidency to make the Tamils see the sense of the demand for Andhra Pradesh. The Telangana movement is already 40 (and more) years old; and it still hasn’t quite achieved what it aimed for. Before the General Elections of 2004, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti allied with the Congress, which informally promised it would concede the TRS’ main demand, while formally stating that it would create a States Reorganisation Commission if voted to power. The Congress alliance came to power in 2004, but a new SRC did not materialise. This led to a renewal of the protests, whereupon, in December 2009, the then Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, promised that the demand for Telangana would soon be granted. But he quickly backtracked. More recently, the Bharatiya Janata Party has said that it would create a Telangana state within 100 days of coming to power at the Centre. As with the Congress in 2004, this promise may be opportunistic rather than principled — intended only to gain votes and seats for its alliance.
My own view — writing as both historian and citizen — is that while linguistic states were necessary in the first, early, stages of Indian independence, it may now be time for a further reorganisation of states. The proponents of Telangana, Vidharbha, and Gorkhaland all have a robust case.
Their regions are well defined in an ecological and cultural sense, and have historically been neglected by the more powerful or richer parts of the State. Likewise, Uttar Pradesh is far too large to be administered as a single unit. Breaking it up into three or four states would lead to more effective and focused governance.
After 65 testing years of independence, there need no longer be any fear about the unity of India. The country is not about to Balkanise, nor is it about to become a dictatorship. The real problems in India today have to do with the quality of governance. Smaller states may be one way to address this problem.
(Ramachandra Guha’s books include India after Gandhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)