Not only Telangana

UPA has missed the moment to set up a second states reorganisation commission.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published:August 27, 2013 12:09 am

UPA has missed the moment to set up a second states reorganisation commission.

Should Telangana be India’s 29th state? My answer is two-fold. Telangana deserves statehood,but the process followed was wrong.

Though the demand for Telangana is old,the government’s decision appears to be electorally driven. Of the six largest states — Uttar Pradesh (80 seats),Maharashtra (48),Andhra Pradesh (42),West Bengal (42),Bihar (40) and Tamil Nadu (39) — the Congress party is politically significant only in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Indeed,with 33 seats won,Andhra was the single largest prize for the Congress in 2009. A separate Telangana can potentially save half of those seats for the party in 2014; otherwise,statewide erosion is more likely. Could the electoral logic be clearer?

We know that public policies are often linked to electoral motivations in democratic politics,but that is not a defensible reason to restructure political institutions. A distinction between policies and institutions is usually drawn in scholarship. By and large,policies tend to be more amendable than institutions. Once made,it is very hard to unmake institutions. A food security bill is not the same as forming a new state.

To evaluate Telangana’s case,we must begin with the original principles of Indian federalism. India’s freedom movement had committed itself to language-based federalism in 1920. Gandhi could clearly see that India’s linguistic communities were too deep-rooted to be erased into an undifferentiated Indian nation. Unlike Europe,which had a one-language-one-nation formula,India would be a multilingual nation. Indians would have hyphenated identities: Tamil Indians,Bengali Indians,Gujarati Indians etc. In Europe,each of these linguistic communities would have been a separate nation. Gandhi and the Congress party delinked nation from language.

Despite this larger understanding,Nehru was unsure about the idea of linguistic states after Independence. Partition violence had been horrific: Nehru became wary of social identities that might unleash mass passions. He wanted economic interests to form the bedrock of politics. Economically constructed politics would bring modernity; politics based on identities would set the nation back.

In 1952,when intense rioting followed the death of an Andhra leader fasting to separate the Telugu-speaking parts of Madras,a moment of truth arrived. Delhi created a new Andhra state. Nehru explained the rationale thus: “I am quite sure that it is not a good thing for the Telugu-speaking areas to be formed into a separate state. Their state will be backward and financially hard up… However,that is their lookout. If they want the state,they can have it on the conditions we have stated.”

Nehru thus conceded the primacy of the democratic principle over personal belief. More importantly,he did not confine himself to an individual decision; recognising the larger implications of an Andhra state,he set up a State Reorganisation Commission (SRC) to advise the government on how to reorganise India’s states. A linguistic reorganisation of Indian federalism followed.

Logically speaking,the creation of Telangana cannot be a stray decision,as there are several such demands — Gorkhaland,Bodoland,Vidarbha. UP too is a geographical monstrosity. The BSP recommends splitting it into four states. By not taking the Nehruvian step towards considering larger institutional restructuring,the UPA has opened itself to the charge of electoral servility. In 2009,when the Telangana movement was at its peak,a new SRC could have been formed. It would have given its report by now.

Do the original principles of Indian federalism support a Telangana state?

Telangana does not have a linguistic foundation distinct from Andhra. Both are Telugu-speaking. It is sometimes said that Telangana Telugu has a lot of Urdu words,whereas coastal Andhra’s Telugu is “purer”. But this can’t be an argument for linguistic distinctiveness. Varanasi’s Hindi is heavily Sanskritised,Lucknow’s Hindi is Urduised. Both are simply two different varieties of Hindi. A linguistic community is often a large family. Not all children will be identical.

More to the point,the linguistic principle has virtually,if not wholly,lost its relevance by now. All of India’s major languages already have a territorial home.

The latest round of state-making — yielding Chhattisgarh,Jharkhand and Uttarakhand in 2000 — was not linguistic.

In the 1950s and ’60s,along with religion,language was seen as India’s greatest faultline. “Language riots” were endemic. In 1960,Selig Harrison predicted India’s break-up along linguistic lines. As it turned out,once linguistic states were born,language riots virtually disappeared. Survey data show that national feeling is very strong in India today; instead of undermining faith in India,linguistic states pre-empted political alienation and facilitated greater mass participation in democratic politics. Political scientists are convinced that the linguistic reorganisation of India was a great success. David Laitin,a leading scholar of language politics,has written that if Europe ever turned into a more integrated political union,India’s three-language formula would be a model to follow.

But if language has ceased to be the larger criterion for state-making in India and Telangana does not have a distinctive linguistic identity either,what could be the grounds for Telangana’s separation? Three arguments are worthy of consideration: economic,political and cultural.

The economic argument is about Telangana’s underdevelopment. Telangana,the heart of the Nizam’s Hyderabad state,was part of princely India; coastal Andhra was in the directly administered British India. The Nizams showed no interest in industry or mass education,concentrating instead on aristocratic privileges and palaces. This was tragic,for unlike their Northern counterparts,Southern princely states — Mysore,Travancore,Cochin — were ahead of British India on literacy.

In 1951,Telangana (excluding Hyderabad city,always a special case) had a literacy rate of 5 per cent,when coastal Andhra’s literacy rate was three times as high. In 1956-7,only 19 per cent of Telangana’s cropped land was irrigated,as opposed to 43 per cent in coastal Andhra. Telangana was also less urbanised and industrialised.

By now,Telangana has more or less caught up. Comprising roughly 37 per cent of the state’s population,it has 38-39 per cent of the state’s

primary schools,46 per cent of high schools,36 per cent of hospitals,45 per cent of panchayat roads,36 per cent of state roads and 44 per cent of power consumption. Excluding Hyderabad,its per capita regional product is roughly 7 per cent lower than coastal Andhra’s. Instead of the great historical backwardness,Telangana now has a small lag,and the gap is narrowing.

The political and cultural narratives are more compelling. Since the formation of Andhra Pradesh,chief ministers from Seemandhra — coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema — have ruled the state for 47 years; chief ministers from Telangana,only nine years. Especially since 1983,N.T. Rama Rao,Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy,N. Chandrababu Naidu and Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy,all from the Seemandhra region,have dominated state politics. The current chief minister is from Rayalaseema.

The cultural narrative is also striking. Charles Taylor,an influential political philosopher,has famously argued that “contemptible images” of a cultural community,consistently projected by a dominant group,can be legitimate ground for the politics of cultural assertion by the subordinate group. Telangana fits this description. Andhra’s popular culture is dominated by its cinema,which is,in turn,controlled by coastal Andhra. Telangana intellectuals argue that thieves,hoodlums and idiots are the only characters who speak Telangana Telugu in Andhra films. The heroes and heroines are always coastal. Condescension and humiliation are systemic in politics,too. The Telangana movement simply represents the politics of dignity.

In short,Telangana may have caught up economically,but the political and cultural marginalisation is acutely felt. It is a feeling likely to resonate in Gorkhaland and elsewhere.

To resolve these arguments on a systemic basis and to set up the contemporary grounds of state formation,India needed a second SRC. In 2000,the NDA lost an institutional moment to do so. In 2013,the UPA has repeated the mistake.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University,where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ express@expressindia.com

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