Page last updated at 16:05 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

India opens Pandora's box over proposed new state

India's government said last week it would allow a new state to be created from part of what is now the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. Historian Mahesh Rangarajan looks at possible fall-out from the move.

Police in Telangana
The campaign for a separate state has been long-running and at times violent

The near total political paralysis of one of India's largest states, Andhra Pradesh, over its proposed carve-up, raises fresh questions about how the world's largest democracy will handle questions of identity and territory in this young century.

Telangana, the new state proposed, is not a fresh demand, but even as it seems closer than ever to materialising, it opens a Pandora's box in a vast country of over a billion people.

It is not numbers, but diversity that has always been the challenge for India.

In 1956, less than a decade after independence, India embarked on a redrawing of most internal boundaries on linguistic lines.

Half a century later, most if not all people in states throughout much of the west, south and east of the country speak the same tongue.

Linguistic divisions

Language defining nationhood was passed in Europe's history.

Population of 35 million
Formed from 10 districts of Andhra Pradesh, including Hyderabad city
Landlocked, predominantly agricultural area
One of the most underdeveloped regions in India
Culmination of 50-year campaign
More than 400 people died in 1969 crackdown

But in a country which now has as many as 18 official languages, linguistic divisions took place within a nation state and not on its international borders.

The issue of the Telangana region shows how the arrangement, over half a century old, is under the scanner.

One simple reason is the vastness of India's larger states. Its most populous province, Uttar Pradesh, has over 170 million people, almost as many as Pakistan.

Its chief minister, Mayawati, has been quick to call for its re-division, a move that may well strengthen her own Bahujan Samaj Party.

For the federal coalition led by the Congress Party, the demand for statehood comes at a time when the economy is on the rebound.

Yet growth figures of over 10% this quarter in Indian industry did little to assuage the anxieties in the federal capital.

Part of the worry is with Andhra Pradesh.

The largest of the southern Indian states, it has long been a bastion of the Congress Party.

Uncanny parallels

Its division is opposed by many of those from outside the Telangana region. They see it as a division of a Telugu-speaking homeland.

K Chandrasekara Rao
K Chandrasekhar Rao broke his fast after 11 days

The historical parallels are uncanny.

It was a fast unto death by a veteran follower of Mahatma Gandhi, Potti Sriramulu, that led independent India's government to cede the demand for a unified Andhra Pradesh.

This December, it was a fast, though not to death, by the Telangana campaigning politician K Chandrasekhar Rao, and fears about his physical well-being, that made the Indian government blink.

India also has a global brand name in the capital city of Hyderabad, a hub of software and a city known the world over. The metropolis is located deep in Telangana, its future uncertain.

Congress is not the only party doing fresh political arithmetic. The regional Telugu Desam Party, a state-specific party is also in a bind.

Confined though only to this one state since its formation nearly two decades ago, it will see its clout shrink to the remnant area once Telangana spins off.

Enduring unity

How many states the country ought to have is not easy to answer.

It was said of 19th Century British Prime Minister William Gladstone and the Irish that every time a leader found the answer, the Irish changed the question.

In the Indian case, new states followed the report of the States Reorganisation Commission, formed after the agitation to create Andhra Pradesh in the early 1950s.

India's enduring unity has been a consequence of linguistic accommodation.

Pakistan broke up into two nations, mainly because Bangla, the language of the largest linguistic group did not get adequate recognition.

Language became a barrier and religion ceased to be a binding force.

Two years after India's redrawing of its map, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) experienced major anti-Tamil riots.

In the Indian case, the accommodation of language-based identity actually reinforced the country's unity as a whole.

But small states have also been created to assuage separatist tendencies and defuse armed insurgencies.

This was the case of Nagaland and Mizoram, both in the north-eastern rim, on the doorstep of South East Asia.

More recently, three states were carved up in north India's Hindi belt.

Small is beautiful?

Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand were aimed at satisfying aspirations of tribal, and in the last instance, hill peoples, who felt being part of a larger entity slowed down development.

The results of such statehood have been mixed. Some states like Haryana on Delhi's doorstep have been success stories.

In other cases such as Jharkhand, small has not all been beautiful with political instability and corruption being rife.

Yet no-one in a newly created state however poorly administered, wants to go back to the way things were.

Telugu Desam Party (TDP) activists protest against the government's decision to create a new state in northern Andhra Pradesh (12 December 2009)
The government's move sparked mass protests in southern Andhra Pradesh

The issue of statehood is complicated by the profusion of demands. Besides a chief minister, an elected assembly and a bureaucracy, small size has another attraction.

Many of the regions with strong movements are rich in minerals and forests, natural resources vital for India's rapid industrialisation.

Since India's states have powers over land, farms and forests, statehood activists often promise more wealth for local growth.

How many states can India have? It had 16 in 1971 and has 28 today.

The old Soviet Union, seven times this country's size, had 16 republics at one time. The United States, with only 300 million people, has as many as 50 states.

The European Union, with slightly more people, has 27 member states.

Clearly, there is room for more states in a republic of a billion plus.

Rift deepens

But no Indian state can be divided unless its own elected state assembly passes a resolution calling for a re-division.

It makes it imperative that those who favour a break-away have to win over consent of the state as a whole.

Delhi's political skills this last fortnight were not much in evidence. Far from calming tempers and working for an amicable split up, it has managed to deepen the rift between Telangana and the rest of the state.

For a break-up to work, it has to be amicable. If it manages this tightrope walk, the Congress will have defused a tense situation.

But it will only open up the issue of how many parts make up the whole in 21st Century India.

Opening Pandora's box was a lot easier than living with what came out of it.

Mahesh Rangarajan is a leading historian. He teaches at Delhi University.

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