Once P Chidambaram set the ball rolling for separation of Telangana state on 9th December 2009, there were similar demands coming from various other regions in India. One was from Gorkhas, currently in West Bengal, who have been asking for a separate state for a long time now. The other is Vidarbha from Maharashtra which was proposed even by NDA government but was kept in cold storage. Mayawati proposed trifurcation of Uttar Pradesh into Bundelkhand, Hitesh Pradesh, and Purvanchal.
Lot of people, especially those who are not exactly entangled in Telangana and Andhra issues, are asking one question – when will these divisions end? Will it result in breakup of India? It looks like Telangana has opened a Pandora’s Box.
Doubts about India
Many British politicians including Winston Churchill prognosticated that India will instantly break up into hundred pieces because they will fight each other and go separate way. Many other observers of those times felt the same. Just look at India of 1947. It had so many religions, so many cultures, so many languages, and so many kingdoms. It looked similar to multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual Europe. How could such a continent live as a country?
And yet it looks like we have disproved many pundits. India is going strong in economy, human development, science and technology, industry, agriculture, military, etc. India remains a vibrant, strong and united nation even after sixty years.
Is that really true? India saw its first breakup right during its Independence when it created Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). Partition of India was a major disaster. Nearly half a million to one million people were murdered on the streets, roads and gutters of Punjab and Bengal. The separation haunted Indian subcontinent for a long time.
‘Division is bad’
Thereafter, India has seen every division with suspicion. There was certain degree of iron hand used to keep the country from getting divided. Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and other prime ministers of India always had uneasy feelings about creating new states as if every such division would lead to Partition. Breaking up meant proving the pundits right. Breaking up meant telling your enemies we are getting weak. A strong nation doesn’t divide its states, we told ourselves. Those were the heady times of nationalism and patriotism. Asking for a state meant anti-Indian.
Meanwhile, the Cold War has ended. National fervors across the world have subsided. Threats have decreased. War with Pakistan doesn’t look as imminent as it did before. India became confident of itself. Our perception of India has started to change. We were getting mature.
No Unity without Diversity
Unity is important, but not at the cost of sacrificing our diversity. Division is not as bad as we thought it would be. It became clear that India is not homogenous, that people had group and regional identities which were as important as national identity itself. We are a united nation only if our local identities are recognized – that’s how the new generations of Indians look at themselves.
Though Nehru was reluctant to do it, creating states along language identity was a pragmatic and wise move. It resulted in containing lot of contention within India. But limiting ourselves to recognize only language as group identity to form states thereby ignoring other group identities is unfortunate. India is compelled into recognizing there are more group identities than just languages. Also, pure administrative reasons could be a reason to create more states.
India immediately accepted caste identities and made provisions for uplifting of lower castes through reservations. India accepted sex identity half-heartedly – it allowed for laws to protect women but has not done enough to ensure proper representation. India is still reluctant to recognize religion as a legitimate identity though political parties seem to play with those identities.
While some group identities are spread uniformly like men and women, upper and lower caste, other group identities have distinct geographies, like Telangana, Konkanis Gorkhas, etc. Some of them deserve statehood.
First 30 years: Big is good
For a long time, it looked like bigger states had better advantages in India. Such a notion actually made sense for a while. India being a flawed federal system did not give equal importance to each state. Since Lok Sabha only recognizes number of MPs; and since big states supply more number of MPs, it was clear that big states have more clout and bargaining power from the Center. Indeed, the first thirty years of India saw the monopoly of big states.
However, that monopoly from big states was confined to politics, not necessarily development. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar, some of the big states of North all failed miserably in all economic indicators though they had more political power. Meanwhile, the smaller and nimble Southern States and Western States emerged as successful states.
Next 30 years: Emergence of regional parties
In absence of a proper representation for states at the Center, various states put up regional/identity parties to make a case. Punjab and Tamil Nadu have a long history of voting for regional parties in their states. Other states joined the fray. TDP came up in Andhra Pradesh, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and so on. These parties contested against national parties on the plank that they are able to get more benefits to their regions.
During 1980s, national parties could not muster majority to form government on their own, and India went through a period of political turmoil to settle on coalition politics. The national parties started taking support of these regional/identity parties to form the government at the center. That’s how states started to negotiate for better representation. Today, coalition politics has become the norm. Emergence of regional parties has led to partial federalization of India. For those who ask why India has so many parties, this is the answer- because India is not a strong federal country. The answer cannot get simpler than that.
In coalition politics, the states that position regional parties to support the government at Center bargain for better representation. That’s how some small-to-medium states have been able to break the clout of bigger states and have been able to make great progress in economy and human development. For example, DMK always takes up IT minister and other important portfolios at the Center though it contributes 18 MPs. Whereas, Congress Party of Andhra Pradesh, did not have a single major portfolio in the cabinet even though it contributes 33 MPs.
Small can be good
With creation of Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Chattisgarh, it became clear that small states could do much better than big states. Uttarakhand has averaged 9.31% growth annually, Jharkhand 8.45%, and Chattisgarh 7.35%, some of them more than national average. Per Capita of Chattisgarh is 29,000 while it is 18,000 in Madhya Pradesh. Infant Mortality in Uttarakhand is 44 compared to 67 in Uttar Pradesh. Literacy Rate in Jharkhand is 61 compared to 55 in Bihar.
It is clear that there are advantages in being small. No longer do people have to put their faith in big states for development and improvement. Smaller states are able to give better administration, allow for electing leaders with more accountability without giving any excuses, and give empowerment through better representation of regional identities.
Incumbent states didn’t pay for their crimes
One of the sad outcomes of suppressing every movement that sought new states was that incumbent states became complacent. They could continue to neglect certain regions with impunity and did not have to pay for the consequences.
Nehru tried to build democratic institutions, while Indira Gandhi went about destroying them or emasculating them. Indira Gandhi suppressed many people movements with ruthless force. In 1969 Telangana agitation, more than 370 protestors were killed, more than 50,000 were put in jail. Thousands were injured. With this action, Indira Gandhi set the tone for the next thirty years. No more states. Period. That led to complacency in many states. They could go on marginalizing and discriminating certain regions within the state without having to pay for their crimes. No court, no law, no institution could protect these suppressed regions from the onslaught of the majority and privileged within a state because the Center had no jurisdiction on how the state would allocate its funds, use up resources, build hospitals and schools.
A state having two regions A and B could consistently marginalize and dominate region B using the majority of A, and there is nothing the region B could do. The region A could flout all agreements, revoke all rulings, and break all promises, deprive region B of its waters, its jobs and its funds, and still there is no price to pay. There were no dire consequences for such heinous crimes.
That complacency led to many regions getting completely neglected in India, the foremost being Telangana because Andhra Pradesh was divided starkly along geographic lines with many difference between the two people. The majority and privileged Andhras consistently flouted all rules, all laws, and all safeguards to continuously oppress Telanganas. And Telanganas couldn’t anything about it. All doors were shut. Indira Gandhi has set a precedent that no matter what happens to you, you should still go to bully and ask for favors, still go back to the same bully and ask for forgiveness.
That’s where Indian democracy went really wrong. A weak-federal strong-central structure led to creating a nation that could not uphold the cherished promises it made in its Constitution to some of its people. These people got neglected, suppressed and oppressed while all the democratic institutions failed to address their grievances.
When will these divisions stop?
With Telangana agitation in the background, I would like to discuss the division of states in India and why I think these divisions would eventually stop, reaching an acceptable equilibrium.
Because of the prevailing tone set by Indira Gandhi et al who were opposed to formation of new states no matter what happened inside a state, incumbent states got the message that no new divisions will be tolerated. After the successes of 1970s when Andhras could even reverse a Supreme Court decision that tried to safeguard interests of Telanganas, the majority and privileged of Andhra escalated the marginalization and discrimination of Telangana with impunity because now it is understood the center will never create a new state.
That was also the reason why most political parties agreed to support separate Telangana in 2009 election, falsely believing that Center will never grant statehood to Telangana. When they made their promises they never thought they had to live up to them. Hence abrupt consternation ensued when P Chidambaram, who had innocently believed their letters written in support for Telangana, came out on 9th December 2009 to announce the steps towards formation of separate Telangana.
The biggest transformation that has happened in the recent past, second to the passing of RTI act, is the acceptance by all national parties a need to create new states. P Chidambaram’s announcement came as a surprise to everyone - this was a major shift from the prevailing tone. If Telangana is formed now, there will definitely be a clamor for more states.
India is going to see creation of many more states in the near future. According to me there could be at least another 20 states created in the next 15 years. Some people ask me, when will stop this division, why won’t this go completely out of control creating a domino effect? Why won’t there be 100 states or 1000 states? Why won't this lead to break up of this country into many nations?
Most people do not understand why India continues to be a united nation. It stays united not because its people are coerced into staying together, but because Indians have faith in this country. We are all willing citizens of this country, not the oppressed subjects. The fact that we are still together in spite of so many problems is a testament to our belief in this country. India will not break up so easily just because we create few more states. In fact, creating more states will result in reaffirmation of our faith in this country that it cares for us by actually addressing our problems.
Big states will not go out of fashion either. There are certain advantages in living a big state and those advantages will continue to motivate people to stay together. Creation of the next set of 20 or odd states will set in motion many changes in how the incumbent states will behave. The way Indira Gandhi’s ruthless suppression set the tone for the last forty years, the current division of states will set the tone for the coming forty years.
Creation of these new states in India at this point of time augurs well for regions that have been neglected so far. After creation of these new states in India, the incumbent states will fear that some of their neglected regions may seek separation any time. Such fear is good because the incumbent states will now concentrate on improving those neglected regions. With that kind of fear, hopefully there will be no more Telanganas.
Neglected regions will get incentives and sops, including better representations and opportunities, safeguarding their interests, reducing the need for these regions to form separate states. Major breakups and separations would decrease with time because most states by then would have learnt their lessons NOT to marginalize or discriminate their regions.
We would have reached a level of maturity then - may be in another 40 years. That’s when these divisions will stop. And who knows, we may see reunifications and mergers after that.
Related Posts: Patriotism is not a prerequisite to live in a country, Patriotism is not a prerequisite to live in a country II, Excessive Nationalism and Blurring of Local Identities, Regional Parties and Coalition Politics, On Group Politics, When majority is not right, Duties of the Majority and the Privileged, Excessive Nationalism and Blurring of Local Identities, India’s most important achievement, India: North and South Debate, Case for Telangana]