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Telangana isn’t scary

Thanks to the first reorganisation of states India did not become Pakistan or Sri Lanka, which had to face civil wars because of their unwillingness to grant linguistic autonomy, writes Ramachandra Guha.

india Updated: Dec 10, 2009 23:14 IST

Consider these excerpts from a set of essays I have been reading:

‘The people of Telangana find themselves in an unenviable state. Their fellow countrymen outside the State of Andhra Pradesh, are unable to understand, much less appreciate, the significance of the revolt in Telangana’.

‘The moment Telangana elected representatives dehypnotise themselves from the lure and pressure of the Andhra political bosses, and fall in line with the aspirations of their electors, the movement will reach its natural culmination’.

These words sound wholly of the moment, whereas they come from a book published 40 years ago. In the first weeks of 1969, meetings calling for a separate state were held in towns and villages in Telangana. As a result of the ‘continuously rising tempo of the Telangana movement’, the police came out in force, and ‘lathi-charges, firings and the resultant violence became the accepted way of life in Telangana’.

In response to the crisis, 300 college teachers held a convention at Hyderabad on May 20, 1969. The proceedings of the conference were published in a book, now scarce, entitled The Telangana Movement: An Investigative Focus. I came by my copy on the pavement in Bangalore some years ago — it is time to share it with the world, since, as the excerpts show, it has a strikingly contemporary resonance.

In 1969, as in 2009, the campaign for Telangana was marked by a rhetoric of betrayal. On February 20, 1956, a ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ was signed between the Congress leaders of the Andhra and Telangana regions respectively. This promised that the deputy chief minister of the united state would be from Telangana, that there would be a quota for Telangana people in government jobs, that an influx of Andhras into their territory would not be allowed. The complaint was that these safeguards had not been put in place.

Nor did the charges end here. Thus, while Telangana had 42 per cent of the state’s cultivated area, it was allotted 30 per cent of the state’s expenditure on agriculture, 27 per cent of the allocation of fertilisers and less than its fair share of canal waters and hydel power.

The convention also made the case for Telangana in positive terms. The state would be viable in size; bigger, for example, than West Bengal and Kerala. It would be viable in economic terms; its rates of food production were higher than the national average, and it had excellent mineral resources. More substantially, it would contribute to a deepening of Indian democracy. For ‘smaller states can help [in] democratising our political process, which in turn will attract the larger sections into [the] developmental process…’ Indeed, ‘smaller states may herald a new and promising era in the political and economic life of [the] nation’.

The delegates to the Hyderabad convention met with the Union home minister to press their case. They failed then — now, 40 years later, their successors appear to have succeeded, with the government promising to pass a resolution in the Andhra Pradesh assembly calling for a separate state of Telangana.

In the 1950s, the map of India was redrawn to create states based on language. That process was likewise set in motion by a fast, conducted by Potti Sriramulu, for a separate state of Andhra Pradesh. Sriramulu, like

K. Chandrasekhar Rao, embodied the sentiments of millions of people. Since he was more obscure, and the prime minister of the day more powerful, it took his death (after 58 days without food) and the intensification of the street protests for the Centre to concede the new state. This then led to protests by Kannada, Marathi, and Malayalam speakers, in response to which a States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) was created, which, in 1956, officially mandated the principle of linguistic states.

In retrospect, it is clear that this reorganisation consolidated national unity, such that India did not go the way of Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which had to suffer bloody civil wars because of the unwillingness to grant linguistic autonomy. However, our nation-state is comparatively young, and still evolving. It now faces a second generation of challenges, these pertaining to the regional imbalances in social and economic development. A new SRC should be constituted, which would look dispassionately into the demands for Vidarbha, Gorkhaland, Harit Pradesh, Kongu Nadu, and other such. Its mandate should also include the granting of real financial and political autonomy to panchayats and municipalities.

To do its task fairly and honourably, a new SRC must draw its members not from political parties but from the law, the academy, and the social sector. The members of the first SRC were the jurist Fazl Ali, the author and diplomat K.M. Panikkar, and the social worker H.N. Kunzru. India today has a comparable set of distinguished and independent-minded people. Some names for a fresh SRC I might suggest are the jurist Fali Nariman, the economist Jean Dreze, the sociologist André Béteille, and the social worker Ela Bhatt — but there would be others, too.

One hopes the Centre has the courage to redeem a promise first made in the UPA manifesto of 2004 but quietly forgotten since. Meanwhile, expect Jaswant Singh to put aside his pen, thus to answer his constituents’ demand that he make Gorkhaland the sole object of his attentions. Ajit Singh may also be stirred out of his present lethargy to lead the movement for Harit Pradesh. As for Rao, he certainly knows the parallels with the movement in the 1950s for a separate Andhra. Potti Sriramulu’s fast was conducted in Madras; because he lived there, and because he wanted Madras to be the capital of Andhra Pradesh. In the event, Sriramulu’s supporters got their state but not that city. Rao’s greatest fear now must be that history would repeat itself in toto, such that they have their Telangana, but without Hyderabad.

Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy

The views expressed by the author are personal