The bitterness that existed in the 1950s between Tamil and Telugu speakers on Chennai parallels the fight for the Andhra Pradesh capital in the Telangana agitation
"We learn from history,” we are often told tritely, “that we do not learn from history!” Perhaps there is more than a grain of truth in this clichéd observation, and this is evident from the ongoing Telangana crisis. So what did we fail to learn from the 1950s agitation that led to the formation of an Andhra province in the first place?
It is now forgotten history that the city of Chennai was the bone of contention between the advocates of a separate province of Telugu-speaking people and the then Madras State (Tamil Nadu) in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Though Telugu speakers, about 15 per cent of the population compared to about 70 per cent of Tamil speakers (1931 Census), constituted a minority in the city, they had a high visibility for a variety of historical reasons. With Indian nationalist politics at the threshold of its mass phase combined with the emergence of a linguistic and regional consciousness, legitimate demands were voiced for a separate province of Andhra as early as the first decade of the 20th century. During the early 1910s, B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya wrote extensively in the pages of The Hindu articulating this demand.
Largest stumbling block
By the time of its Nagpur session in 1920, the Indian National Congress had reorganised itself on linguistic lines and the newly-formed Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee demanded the city of Chennai for its jurisdiction. Though this demand was articulated intermittently through the subsequent decades, it came to a head only as independence became imminent. However the Telugu demand for Chennai got tied to the formation of a separate Andhra state and turned out to be the single largest stumbling block to the creation of Andhra state.
In 1938, with the formation of the first Congress ministry, the Madras Legislative Assembly recommended the formation of ‘separate Provinces for the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Kerala regions.’ The demand for Andhra got enmeshed in Congress factional politics with intense rivalry between C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) and T. Prakasam. The fall of the Prakasam ministry in the Madras Province, largely as a result of Congress factional politics shortly after Independence, further fuelled the demand for a separate Andhra province.
In June 1948, the Constituent Assembly of India appointed a commission headed by S.K. Dar to examine the formation of new provinces. The Dar commission recommended reorganisation not on “linguistic consideration but rather upon administrative convenience.” In the wake of the calamitous Partition, this found support in Nehru.
In its Jaipur session in December 1948, the Congress appointed a Linguistic Provinces Committee with Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya (the JVP Committee), which in its report presented in April 1949, accepted the Dar Commission’s views by recommending the postponement of linguistic reorganisation by a few years. But Andhra was an exception. “In some ways,” the committee observed, “the demand for an Andhra Province has a larger measure of consent behind it than other similar demands.” However, it added ominously that, “Yet there is controversy about certain areas as well as about the city of Madras.”
Therefore the thinking of the Congress leadership at the top was clear and unequivocal right from the beginning. In November 1949, the Congress Working Committee recommended the formation of a separate Andhra province excluding the city of Madras. Inextricably linked with the demand for Chennai, the declaration of the Andhra province came to be delayed by a few more years. It also occasioned the unnecessary and tragic loss of lives and property, and caused teething problems to the fledgling nation state.
A Partition Committee was formed in November 1949 and the Madras Cabinet approved its report in January 1950, but was mired in controversy with T. Prakasam signing a note of dissent that the apparatus of the new province should reside in Madras city until a new capital was ready.
Andhra continued to be on a boil. It all at once came down to one issue: while the protesters demanded a separate Andhra state and the government was more than eager to grant it, the claim over Madras city stalled the issue.
Widening fault lines
As the agitation for a separate Andhra got protracted, the fault lines within the Andhra Congress widened. It became obvious that those advocating the interests of Rayalaseema and the coastal districts of Andhra did not see eye to eye. To this may be added the view that Madras city should become a Chief Commissioner’s province, effectively under the control of the Central government, or a joint capital or even a Union Territory — reminiscent of the story of Solomon’s justice over the disputed child.
The first general elections of January 1952 added further variables. The Congress failed to win a majority in the Madras Presidency, weakening the hand of K. Kamaraj, its leader, and paving the way for Rajaji to form a Congress government; T. Prakasam too lost badly. Despite Rajaji’s view that the cry for linguistic provinces was a “tribal demand,” he supported the formation of an Andhra province but without conceding Chennai.
Various Andhra leaders such as Neelam Sanjiva Reddy and V.V. Giri — the philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan not excluded — put pressure on the Central government. Nehru not only refused the demand for the appointment of a commission without a general agreement but also ruled out a plebiscite. By July 1952, Nehru declared that “there ha[d] been so much argument on this subject that no one can say anything new or worthwhile.”
This, however, was to change with one as-yet-unknown Congressman’s fast. The death of Potti Sriramulu on December 15, 1952 led to large-scale violence in Andhra. Despite Nehru’s bold statement in Parliament that “we must not mix up various things because a riotous mob did something,” the Government of India appointed in December 1952 a committee under Justice K.N. Wanchoo. Wanchoo’s report, submitted in early February 1953, favoured the creation of the Andhra state and recommended that, until a new capital was built, the Andhra government could be lodged in Chennai. Nehru was inclined to accept this recommendation but was stoutly opposed by Rajaji.
The popular nationalist writer and journalist, Kalki — the alter ego of Rajaji — captured the dangers of declaring Chennai the temporary capital: This move could pave the way for the influx of excited agitators from outside leading to violence triggering police action. The ensuing loss of lives would lead to further claims on the ground that the soil of Chennai had been sanctified by the blood of martyrs. Soon the city would be termed ‘a disputed area’ and would lead to unending controversy and agitation, like Kashmir.
In the light of this premonition Rajaji even went to the extent of threatening to resign from the premiership finally convincing Nehru this move would only result in “unseemly agitation, acrimonious controversies and administrative conflicts.”
By 1953 the question of Chennai was pretty much settled. The bitterness between Andhra and Tamil Nadu soon evaporated, as a united Andhra Pradesh was forged over the decades, and a new and thriving capital built. That this has not lasted is the present issue.
Issues of identity
What lessons does this now-forgotten story teach us? Is it a case of history repeating itself as tragedy? If issues of identity and territorial claims in so-called more enlightened times could have been so acrimonious, little needs to be said about the implications for more cynical times such as ours. The delay in addressing genuine popular concerns makes them an electoral issue leading to competitive inter-party and intra-party politics. Decisions taken in the heat of large-scale violence and bloodshed tend to be not so well thought out. Appointing commission after commission in the hope that agitations will dissipate simply doesn’t work. When popular mobilisation gathers force, fault lines become chasms. Soft-pedalling on implementation confounds matters. This is amply borne out by the Seemandhra backlash. One hopes that the Central government will keep in mind the Chennai lesson in deciding the fate of Hyderabad.
(This essay draws from the author’s earlier contribution to A.R. Venkatachalapathy (ed.), Chennai, Not Madras: Perspectives on the City, Marg, Mumbai, 2006.)