Sixty-six years after Independence, the government and political parties across the board still react as crisis managers when redrawing the nation’s internal map. Instead of rationally evolved principles guiding it, the decision on Telangana has once again been taken for narrow electoral considerations. By bowing to a sustained agitation in a piecemeal manner, the pathways have been opened for similar agitations.
Though given ample opportunity over the past three years to evolve a framework for reorganisation of India, the government squandered it. As a result, future governments are likely to continue behaving like proverbial headless chickens whenever faced with similar situations elsewhere.
Language became a matter of discord as early as in 1896 when an agitation for the removal of Hindi-speaking regions from Bengal and forming the Province of Bihar was launched. Because of this, in 1920, Mahatma Gandhi argued in favour of linguistic reorganisation of provinces. Thereafter, it became the proverbial Damocles’ Sword hanging over the Congress.
By the 1930s, the Congress was committed to linguistic states and reiterated the pledge in its election manifesto in 1945-46. However, the divisive potential of the move was realised and the Linguistic Provinces Commission was formed in June 1948 to re-examine the issue.
The commission rejected linguistic reorganisation. But political expediency saw the Congress appointing the JVP Committee (named after Jawaharlal, Vallabhai and Pattabhi Sitaramayya) which bowed to popular sentiment and fell into the linguistic trap by accepting it in principle but stating that the time was inappropriate.
The JVP Committee’s recommendations were based on a compromise formula. The same approach continued in 1956 when the recommendations of the States Reorganisation Commission were accepted. The linguistic principle was upheld for states like Andhra Pradesh when the Telangana region was merged into it, but rejected for Bombay State which remained bilingual. Only after the Maha Gujarat agitation became popular, Maharashtra and Gujarat were carved out of the unified state.
By the 1960s, half of India was redrawn on linguistic lines. No mainstream leader argued against linguistic states for not factoring in future migrations which could legitimately change the linguistic character of the state. The linguistic principle also ignored the right to equality of linguistic minorities.
This ambivalence saw language-politics dictating the formation of Punjab, Haryana and reallocation of territories to Himachal Pradesh. The Telangana agitation of the late 1960s was contained by a combination of political sleight and firmness. Matters eased thereafter and from the mid-1980s language stopped being as divisive an issue because new fault lines emerged.
Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand were formed due to agitations that saw regional lop-sided development as backwardness. The new states merely replaced one elite political-contractor chain with another.
Frequent reversal of positions by the Congress and the BJP fuelled the Telangana movement from 2001. In the past decade it has been amply evident that the Indian map needed to be taken to the drawing board again but this has not been done. It almost appeared — especially after 2009 — that the Centre hoped that the demand for Telangana would die down on its own and stifle other nascent agitations.
Probably it is time to convert our giant metros — Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad for instance — into separate states and evolve new principles for the formation of other states.
Many argue that demands for smaller states raise the spectre of something like 565 princely states coming back to haunt India. Such fears are exaggerated and on the contrary this may significantly reduce the role and influence of satraps as single states will not have sufficient numbers of parliamentary seats for leaders in just one small state to exert considerable political influence. Parties with a pan-Indian presence will probably be at an advantage.
But even if this does not happen, it is not sufficient reason for not taking a fresh look at reorganisation. Quick-fix solutions chiselled out on social media, TV shows or through other mass media cannot replace reasoned scrutiny by a second reorganisation commission adequately backed by experts.
Parliament can debate its report and legislate on recommendations. If that is not done, the majority of the people will continue to fight for the benefit of a handful. It is time for the present political leadership to rise above the politically selfish practices of its forerunners.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist The views expressed by the author are personal