‘Commissions of enquiry are often the stock-in-trade of governments to defuse crises and buy themselves time’. Thus writes the historian Gyanesh Kudaisya, in an excellent introduction to a new edition of the Report of the States Reorganization Commission, first published in 1955.
The States Reorganization Commission (hereafter SRC) was set up in response to persistent demands that colonial provincial boundaries be redrawn on the basis of language. It had three members: the jurist S Fazl Ali, the social worker HN Kunzru, and the historian and diplomat KM Panikkar.
The Commission toured the country, examined thousands of witnesses and took in hundreds of written testimonies. Its report, submitted on September 30, 1955, asked for the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines. Its recommendations were largely accepted; over the next decade, cohesive states protecting the interests of Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi and Gujarati speakers came into being.
Unlike other commissions, the SRC was not a mere holding operation, but had a defining impact on the evolution of Indian nationhood. Kudaisya rightly points out that only one other commission has left such ‘a decisive imprint on [India’s] political life’, namely, the Mandal Commission.
I urge interested readers to pick up a copy of the reprinted SRC report. Here I wish to focus on a little-noticed appendix; a 10-page ‘Note on Uttar Pradesh’ by KM Panikkar.
Panikkar considered it “essential for the successful working of a federation that the units should be fairly evenly balanced”. The massive size of UP violated this principle. The 1951 Census recorded its population as 63 million, or over one-sixth of India’s total population. The next most populous state, Bihar, lagged far behind at 40 million.
The need not to accord a single unit undue importance was recognised in the United States, where each state sent two Senators regardless of its population or size. Unfortunately the Indian Constitution did not contain any such provision to counteract the dominant influence of a single state. As a result, Uttar Pradesh had (in 1955) a whopping 86 out of 499 members in the Lok Sabha, and 31 out of 216 in the Rajya Sabha.
Looking into the future, Panikkar wrote that “it would be easy to see that this preponderant influence which would accrue to a very large unit could be abused, and would in any case be resented by all the other constituent units”. Modern governments, he remarked, “are controlled, to a greater or lesser extent, by party machines, within which the voting power of a numerically strong group goes a very long way”.
Panikkar wondered whether it was “desirable to place any unit in a position to exercise an unduly large measure of political influence”. Indeed, the political dominance of Uttar Pradesh had already begun “to create feelings of distrust and resentment” in the other states of the Union. It was resented in the southern states and also in Punjab and Bengal. In their extensive tours, the members of the Commission had repeatedly heard complaints against “the present system of government [which] led to the dominance of Uttar Pradesh in all-India matters”.
Panikkar thus argued that it was absolutely imperative to divide Uttar Pradesh into two. The north-western districts of the state could be carved out and combined with parts of Madhya Pradesh to create a new ‘Agra State’ with an estimated population of 24 million. The residual State of Uttar Pradesh would have 41 million people. This division would rectify what in Panikkar’s view was “the major and basic weakness of the Indian Constitution — the extraordinary disparity between one unit and the rest”.
While his case rested chiefly on political grounds, Panikkar noted in passing that “the present unmanageable size” of Uttar Pradesh “stands in the way of efficient administration”.
It still does. According to the 2011 census, the population of UP was 199 million; the second-most populous state, Maharashtra, contained some 112 million people. The state’s sheer size is a crucial reason why UP has been so badly governed, as reflected in its appalling economic and social indicators. Although, in 2000, a few hill districts were carved out to create Uttarakhand, a further division of the state is vital in its own interests and in the interests of the nation as a whole.
But will this happen? The only major politician who has spoken clearly in terms of a division is Mayawati (in 2011 she even got a resolution passed to that effect in the UP assembly). The Bharatiya Janata Party claims to be in favour of smaller states, but after the last general election — when its consolidated success in UP was so crucial to its victory — it has fallen silent on the question.
How might the state be divided? There is a long-standing demand for ‘Harit Pradesh’, consisting of Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, and other western districts. Perhaps the eastern districts, which have a distinct ecology and culture, could come to constitute ‘Purvanchal’. The central districts around Lucknow can become the state of ‘Awadh’. Southwestern UP can merge with the neighbouring parts of MP to constitute ‘Bundelkhand’, like Awadh a region with a strong sense of cultural identity.
To be sure, other factors — such as the amorality and short-sightedness of its political leaders across party lines — have contributed to the persistence of poverty and malgovernance in Uttar Pradesh. But its continuance as a single administrative and political unit is surely another factor. Indonesia and Brazil, countries whose populations are comparable in size to UP, have 34 and 26 states, respectively.
Whether UP should become two, three or four states is an open question; that it can stay as it is not. For an undivided UP hurts the citizens of UP, and it hurts India.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal