In Telangana Decision, a Microcosm of India's Geopolitical Challenge
India is set to inaugurate its 29th state: Telangana will be carved out of the existing southern state of Andhra Pradesh after the highest working body of India's ruling Congress Party decided late July 30 to find the legal means to create the new entity. The success of the Telangana movement for statehood encapsulates the deep-rooted struggles New Delhi faces in trying to preserve and manage a nation riven with internal complexities.
Now that the Congress Party and its allies in the United Progressive Alliance coalition, as well as the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, have endorsed Telangana statehood, the proposal will move to the Andhra Pradesh state assembly, which will be called upon to sort out water and energy distribution as well as pending political issues before the new state can be approved by a simple majority vote in the national parliament. Some Congress Party officials, eager to seize political momentum and in hopes that the move will translate into votes in the 2014 general elections, claim the process can be completed in as little as four to five months, but that is probably too optimistic an estimate.
The Indian government has deployed an additional 1,500 paramilitary personnel to the state in anticipation of riots, fearing that clashes will ensue between celebrating pro-Telangana activists and opponents protesting the split of Andhra Pradesh. In addition to the threat of riots, Naxalite insurgents and Islamist militants known to operate in the area may use the opportunity to stir up unrest at a time when political sensitivities are running high.
The Prize of Hyderabad
The soon-to-be-altered boundaries of Andhra Pradesh currently encompass three geographically distinct areas: Telangana, the Andhra coastal plain and the interior Rayalaseema region. The proposal in its current form calls for carving an independent Telangana state out of the 10 northwestern districts of Andhra Pradesh, an area comprising roughly 60,000 square miles with a population of just over 35 million; Andhra Pradesh has a total estimated population of 85 million.
The area that will become Telangana is sandwiched between the Godavari and Krishna rivers and sits on the Deccan plateau, west of the Eastern Ghats mountain range. Though the mostly barren north suffers from acute power shortages, has a high rate of poverty and is a hotbed for Naxalism — India's Maoist militant movement — its geographic boundaries include Hyderabad, one of India's most vibrant economic regions.
To the east of the Ghats range sits the coastal plain, where the Godavari and Krishna drain into the Bay of Bengal and open the Andhra coast to trade and commerce with the outside world. Rayalaseema, on the other hand, occupies the state's southwest interior, west of the Eastern Ghats mountain range and just south of the Krishna River. Lacking a city like Hyderabad to serve as a magnet for foreign direct investment, and missing out on the perks of a long coastline to fuel growth, Rayalaseema, drought-prone and teeming with Naxalite militants, has lagged behind its Andhra counterparts.
The new plan to divide Andhra Pradesh would have the residual non-Telangana parts — coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema — form the state of Seemandhra. Further, the most controversial element of the Congress Party's current proposal entitles Telangana to the economic prize of Hyderabad, which would serve as a joint capital for 10 years during which Seemandhra is tasked with appointing or building its own capital.
A History of Scissions
Telangana is poised to join a long list of states that have been created since India's independence in 1947. Before Telangana, the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal were carved out of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively, in 2000. Goa defined its state boundaries in 1987, while Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram in the country’s far-flung northeast grew out of Assam in the same year. Manipur and Tripura earned their statehood in 1972, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were carved out of Punjab state in 1966 and Bombay state in 1960 was divided along linguistic lines into Maharashtra and Gujarat. There is a much longer list of agitated pockets throughout India that are trying to get on the list for statehood, including but not limited to calls for a Bodoland in Assam, Gorkhaland in West Bengal and Vidarbha in Maharashtra.
India's constantly shifting map is no accident. Nation-building can be a messy process, and politicians, activists and militants of various stripes are still grappling with a score of unsettled issues left by India's chaotic transition from the British Raj to an Indian republic in the mid-20th century. Like a cracked window pane, India's multiple river systems cut across the subcontinent and give shape to hundreds of distinct geographic, ethnic, religious and linguistic identities.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and the father of the Indian republic, quickly realized that the three-tier division the British Raj used to divide and administer India's governorships and princely states was ill-suited to the new country. In 1953, he launched a commission to figure out how to reorganize the country. Controversial political questions naturally emerged — whether to redraw states along lines of linguistic and cultural unity, as well as how to preserve geographic continuity and financial viability. Leaders worried about the precedents any action could set in a country that speaks hundreds of languages and dialects and is beset by overlapping boundaries and economic interests.
The decided course of action — as often happens when government commissions confront politically explosive tasks — was to maintain ambiguity. In the words of the commission that led to the States Reorganization Act of 1956, "it is neither possible nor desirable to reorganize States on the basis of the single test of either language or culture, but that a balanced approach to the whole problem is necessary in the interest of our national unity."
Intractable Geopolitical Realities
India is still struggling to find that balance, and the Telangana movement encapsulates the broader issues. Under the States Reorganization Act, Andhra, a Telugu-speaking region, was the first state to be created on a linguistic basis when it was carved out of the wealthier Madras state, a Tamil-speaking region, in 1953. The people of the Andhra coastal plain looked toward the Deccan plateau to the bustling city of Hyderabad for an economic boost, arguing that Telugu would be the linguistic bond to conjoin the Andhra and Telangana regions. But the largely impoverished Telangana people did not identify with their Andhra neighbors, fearing that any economic benefit derived from Hyderabad would be monopolized by the relatively better-off Andhra traders on the coast.
To convince the Telangana to forgo their demands for a separate Hyderabad state and join a Telugu-speaking Andhra state, a so-called gentlemen's agreement was drafted in 1956 to guarantee Telangana demands in the new state. Those demands were left unfulfilled, and after 60 years of political agitation, violent crackdowns and unfulfilled promises of statehood, Telangana is now the closest it has ever been to marking its independence from the Andhra region.
But New Delhi's struggle does not end here. The creation of a new state that affects Hyderabad, a major economic hub home to a number of multinational corporations, is going to be a messy affair. And the statehood question is being addressed at a time when the government is desperately trying to attract and retain long-term foreign direct investment to help it cope with the global economic crisis. There is also substantial opposition within the ruling party itself over the idea of acquiescing to Telangana's demand for statehood. The widespread concern is that this could provide a spark to an array of long-simmering separatist movements, many of which can turn violent.
India's geopolitical reality denies New Delhi the influence and power to maintain its internal boundaries unaltered strictly via force. Compromises are inevitable and dealt with on a case-by-case basis — always with the fear of setting a new and dangerous precedent. For now, the ruling party appears ready to absorb the risk of granting Telangana statehood, but New Delhi's job of cutting, pasting and mashing together a nation of disparate identities is still far from complete.