India’s Newest State Is Born Out of Political Calculation, Not Cultural Identity

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Mahesh Kumar A. / AP

Student protesters in the Indian city of Hyderabad hurl stones at policemen during a protest demanding creation of a new state named Telangana on June 14, 2013

In the 1950s, India’s States Reorganisation Commission, established by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, suggested that administration would be easier if the country could be divided into states based on languages (of which India has well over 400). Based on the recommendations of that commission, several linguistic entities were carved out: Kerala (for Malayalam speakers), Karnataka (for speakers of Kanadda), Maharashtra (for Marathi speakers) and Gujarat (for those who had Gujarati as a mother tongue).

In later years, Haryana was formed from the Hindi-speaking half of Punjab. And the notion of a linguistic state still had currency as recently as 2000, when Chhattisgarh was constituted from the 16 Chhattisgarhi-speaking districts of Madhya Pradesh. But language isn’t everything. That is the inescapable conclusion of the sundering, on July 31, of Andhra Pradesh, which, when it was formed in 1956, was ironically India’s first linguistic state, created for speakers of Telugu. Now 10 of Andhra Pradesh’s 23 districts have been detached from the rest and will be formed into the state of Telangana, with a population of 40 million. For the next 10 years, Telangana will share Hyderabad with the remainder of Andhra Pradesh as its capital — the city is India’s sixth largest city and home to many multinational headquarters, among them those of Google, Microsoft and Dell.

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The pro-Telangana movement draws most of its support from those who feel that the area has been economically neglected by New Delhi and by the state government of Andhra Pradesh; it was galvanized by a 2009 hunger strike by K. Chandrasekhara Rao, chief of the separatist Telangana Rashtra Samithi party. But the more recent catalyst for the formation of India’s 29th state is more calculated. After dragging its feet on the issue for years, simple electioneering appears to be the reason for New Delhi’s sudden approval of the creation of Telagana, over the loud protests of the rest of Andhra Pradesh (previously, parent-state approval was a condition for the secession of a region as a separate entity). The mathematics is plain. A Congress Party beset by corruption scandals and blamed for a slowing economy has noticed that almost half of Andhra Pradesh’s 42 parliamentary seats lie in what is now Telangana. Giving in to separatist demands and tying up with Rao’s party holds the promise of those seats being delivered in general elections slated for 2014.

Experts warn that new states cannot be birthed amid such political buccaneering. “Given India’s diversity and plurality, there’s a strong case for smaller states for administrative convenience,” says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a Delhi-based independent political analyst. “However, you need a seditious political leadership to manage such sentiments across the country. You have to deal with it, not just on a political level but also on an economic level. But I doubt whether the present government is capable of that.”

Reaction to the creation of India’s newest state has been swift and harsh. Twelve Congress Party legislators resigned in protest in Andhra Pradesh, which has been crippled by protests and strikes opposing the Telagana secession. Elsewhere in the country, other separatist movements felt emboldened to intensify their statehood demands. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha party, which is demanding an ethnically Nepali Gorkhaland to be carved out of West Bengal, called for a 72-hour shutdown of Darjeeling. It resembled a ghost town on Monday with deserted roads being patrolled by Indian troops. The country’s famed social activist Anna Hazare has said that the Telangana precedent will “weaken” the country. “It will spur and further intensify the demands for new states,” says Sanjeer Alam, an associate fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “Since the political class does not have a well-thought-out policy to take on the demands for new states, the country is bound to see chaos, violence and a situation of anarchy.”

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The worry isn’t entirely shared. “Given the diversity and plurality of India, why would anyone believe that breaking up of the country into states would affect its polity?” says Guha Thakurta. Economically too, there something to be said for statehood, at least in the short term. Chhattisgarh and two other states also created in 2000, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand, all recorded rapid development after secession and marked improvements in the implementation of various developmental schemes like a federal job-guarantee program. But “new states are not magic bullets for improving administrative efficiency,” cautions Louise Tillin, lecturer in politics at King’s College London and author of the book Remapping India: New States and Their Political Origins. “The longer-term effects are still to be seen.”

Critics argue that small states are more dependent on the central government and, in seeking to attract investment, become more vulnerable to the depredations of large corporations and even organized crime. Ashutosh Kumar, professor of Indian politics at Panjab University, says that “the bigger worry” is not the threat to national integrity so much as the inability of smaller states to withstand corroding forces. “Telangana is a hotbed of Maoist insurgency,” he points out. “As a smaller state would it be able to handle the insurgency as effectively?”

Further redrawing of the federal map appears inevitable, however, as New Delhi grasps for ways to ease the pressures of administering what will be, by 2028, the world’s most populous nation. (India’s 1.2 billion people are organized into only 28 states — compare that to the U.S., a country of 300 million, which has 50 states.) But “it will pay off only if the creation of smaller states increases administrative efficiency and [if it] reduces the distance between the administration and the people,” says Alam. “It will work only if it contributes to better governance, better power sharing and fulfills the aspirations of a long-neglected and relatively deprived section of the population.” These are tall orders in India. If they are not fulfilled, the country’s separatists had better be careful of what they wish for.

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