The United States of America has less than half as many citizens as the republic of India, yet almost twice as many states. The map of that country has been drawn and redrawn very many times in the course of its history. On January 1, 1800, for example, the US had only 16 states; fifty years later, the number had jumped to 30. When the 19th century ended there were 45 states in the union. Oklahoma was added in 1907, while Arizona and New Mexico were incorporated in 1912. Hawaii and Alaska came on board as late as 1959.
To be sure, while some of these states were carved out of existing ones, most were added on as the American colonists expanded their reach and influence to the west and south of the continent. On the other hand, the republic of India is constituted out of territory left behind by the British. After the integration of the princely states was completed in 1948, no new land has been acquired by the Indian Union. Still, the American example is not entirely irrelevant, for it shows that large nations take shape over long periods of time. It may only be after a century or more after a nation’s founding that its political geography settles into a stable equilibrium, with its internal divisions and subdivisions finally and firmly established.
When India became independent in 1947, it inherited the provincial divisions of the raj, these a product of accident rather than of historical or social logic. At once, a clamour began to create states based on linguistic communities. The Telugu speakers of the Madras Presidency wanted an Andhra Pradesh. The Marathi speakers of the Bombay Presidency demanded a Maharashtra. The Punjabi, Malayalam and Kannada speakers likewise mounted campaigns for states incorporating their particular interests.
The Congress leadership, represented by Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, was initially opposed to linguistic states. Having just witnessed the division of India on the basis of religion, it now feared a further balkanization on the basis of language. However, the demands grew so insistent that the government finally constituted a states reorganization commission. The commission had three members: a jurist, S. Fazal Ali (who also served as chairman), a historian, K.M. Panikkar, and a social worker, H.N. Kunzru.
The report of the SRC, made public in 1955, recommended that the four major linguistic communities of southern India get states of their own. A consolidated state of Marathi speakers was not granted, principally because the Parsi and Gujarati capitalists of Mumbai were fearful of its consequences. However, this led to a resurgence of the samyukta (united) Maharashtra demand, which acquired such widespread popular support that in 1960 two separate states of Gujarat and Maharashtra were constituted, with Bombay being awarded to the latter.
The SRC did not concede the demand of Punjabi speakers either, because it was led by the Sikhs, and the Congress leadership feared that it might be the precursor of an independent Sikh homeland. But when the Sikhs fought so valiantly for India in the 1965 war with Pakistan, the longstanding demand for a ‘Punjabi suba’ was finally conceded, with the areas dominated by non-Sikhs being separated to constitute the new states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.
Viewed retrospectively, the fears of Nehru and Patel appear to have been misplaced. With the partial exception of Punjab in a particular decade (the 1980s), the new states based on language have not been a threat to national unity. To the contrary, they have consolidated this unity. Whereas Pakistan split into two because the Punjabi and Urdu speakers of the west oppressed the Bengali speakers of the east, and Sri Lanka underwent a 30-year civil war because the Sinhala majority sought to make the minority Tamils second-class citizens, the republic of India has, by creating clearly demarcated territories and autonomous provincial governments, allowed its major linguistic communities the space and place to nourish and renew themselves.
In the context of the challenges of the 1950s and 1960s, the creation of linguistic states was an effective solution. But must it be a permanent one? Do not now the new challenges of inclusive development and good governance call for a further redrawing of the map of the republic? That is the question raised by the movement for a Telangana state, a Vidarbha state, a Gorkhaland state, a Bundelkhand state (and some others). Those who articulate these demands do so on the grounds that they represent populations whose livelihood needs and cultural aspirations are denied dignified expression in the excessively large states in which they now find themselves.
Before the general elections of 2004, the Congress, then out of power, forged an alliance with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. It made one particular promise and one general promise; support for the creation of a Telangana state, and the formation of a new states reorganization commission. After it unexpectedly came to power, the Congress reneged on both promises: the first because it was opposed by the powerful Andhra chief minister, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy; the second because it was opposed by the communist parties, whose support was crucial to the new government’s survival, and who vetoed a new SRC because the Bengali comrades did not want to give encouragement to the movement for a state of Gorkhaland.
The constraints of realpolitik compelled the Congress to abandon promises made in 2004. Five years later, it came to power without requiring the support of the Left. Surely it was now time to constitute a new SRC with three or more credible members? That it failed to do so was the product of apathy, inertia, indolence, complacency, in a word, status quoism. The consequence was a resurgence of the Telangana movement. The Central government, buying time, set up a commission under B.N. Srikrishna. The report, recently tabled, basically favours the retention of a united Andhra, and is sure to lead to a fresh and costly wave of strikes, bandhs, fasts, and hartals.
The experience of the past few decades suggests that smaller states are, on the whole, conducive to good (or at least less dreadful) governance. After a unified state of Punjab split into three parts, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and the now truncated, Sikh dominated Punjab have all witnessed steady economic growth. The hill states of Uttarakhand and Meghalaya are better off for having left the low-lying large states of which they were previously part, namely Uttar Pradesh and Assam. I do not believe that, for all their difficulties, the residents of Chhattisgarh are nostalgic for the days when it was part of Madhya Pradesh. True, Jharkhand does not appear to have significantly benefited from separation from Bihar, but its major problems — Maoism, the mining mafia, political corruption and so on — predate its creation as a state of the Union.
The commission that I am calling for — and which both reason and emotion mandate —would consider each case for a new state — Telangana, Vidarbha, Gorkhaland, et al — on its merits. Regions that have a cultural, ecological or historical coherence, and are adversely affected by their current status as part of a larger unit, could be granted statehood; for the examples of successful smaller states alluded to above suggest that they may more meaningfully respond to the social and economic needs of the people.
As a political experiment the Indian republic is young, and still finding its equilibrium. A bold government, a government that both understands the nature of the Indian experiment and cares for the future of India, would now constitute a new states reorganization commission. That government is not, alas, this government, which is damaged by a spate of corruption scandals, and headed by a prime minister who is cautious at the best of times. The unrest and discontent will therefore continue in Telangana, and beyond.