A confrontation is brewing in India on regional and sub-regional issues, with a huge potential for violence. At stake is separate statehood for Telangana, comprised of the northern districts of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, at the centre of which lies Hyderabad.
There has been a strong agitation for Telangana statehood, led by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) party, which prompted the government to appoint a committee headed by former Supreme Court judge B N Srikrishna a year ago. The TRS has decided to boycott meetings to discuss the committee’s just-published report. The Bharatiya Janata Party has followed suit. Most other parties, including the Congress, are divided.
Telangana statehood is opposed in the other two regions of Andhra Pradesh, the coastal area and Rayalaseema. Srikrishna’s report doesn’t recommend either statehood or another arrangement. It only lists various options: the status quo; making Hyderabad a Union (federally administered) Territory and the capital of both Telangana and Andhra, like Chandigarh, which is the capital of both Indian Punjab and Haryana; or an altogether new reconfiguration.
On one side of the battlefield are the TRS led by K Chandrasekhara Rao (KCR), the BJP, the Communist Party of India, most Telangana-based legislators from the Congress, the Telugu Desam Party and some smaller parties. They emphasise Telangana’s distinctive culture, dialects, cuisine and customs.
On the other side are: the new political formation-in-the-making under Jaganmohan Reddy, son of the late Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy; the Communist Party (Marxist); and members of the Congress and TDP from coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema. Newly-installed CM Kiran Kumar Reddy and Governor E S L Narasimhan are believed to be hostile to separate statehood.
The governor is supposed to be apolitical. But Narasimhan, a former intelligence official, isn’t. The pro-Telangana group in the Congress resents not being consulted by the party’s central leadership. The pro-Telangana sentiment is far weaker in the TDP, whose leadership comes predominantly from the coastal region.
Statehood’s opponents warn against violating the accepted principle of linguistic reorganisation of states, and triggering the formation of “too many” small states like Vidarbha, Bundelkhand, Gorkhaland and Bodoland. But India has 1,130 million people. There are strong political and administrative reasons for smaller states, based on cultural, agro-climatic, economic and administrative considerations.
Small social groups would be better represented by, say, 50 states, than in the present 28 states and seven Union Territories. There are enough sub-linguistic differences that warrant further reorganisation. Smaller states are generally better at promoting participatory democracy and development. Federalism, a worthy principle, is neglected in over-centralised India.
If the Telangana issue is decided in a conventional fashion, contention and conflict will follow. The TRS demands that the Centre move a resolution in the coming parliament session to create the new state, with Hyderabad as its capital, as promised by Home Minister P Chidambaram in December 2009. His promise, driven by panic, exceeded the Telangana proponents’ wildest expectations.
The unified-Andhra lobby bristles at the thought that Telangana should be rewarded with the prized jewel that’s Hyderabad, a city to which all three regions lay claim. If Telangana statehood is conceded, people in the other two regions will take to the streets.
The Centre has been tactless in sending thousands of paramilitary forces primarily to Telangana, thus giving the impression of an anti-Telangana bias. It must behave more maturely, aware that even a minor mistake by it will lead to avoidable bloodshed and loss of life.
Eventually, the Congress may settle the Telangana issue on a crudely political self-interest calculus. If it accepts KCR’s public offer of merging the TRS with the Congress if a separate state is created, it can secure enthusiastic support of the Telangana people and win 17 Lok Sabha seats (of Andhra’s total of 42). If it dithers, or opposes separate statehood, it stands to lose in all the regions.
Andhra Pradesh is extremely important for the Congress. It owes 35 of its 206 Lok Sabha seats to the state – the highest in any province. This was the Congress’s highest success rate in 2009.
Yet, there’s a principled case for a separate Telangana state, based on social, cultural, economic and political considerations. As a political entity, Telangana as the erstwhile Hyderabad state is older than Andhra. Its identity is partly rooted in the anti-Nizam-anti-British freedom movement and the Telangana armed peasant struggle.
Andhra came into being only in 1953, comprising the coastal region and Rayalaseema, with Kurnool as its capital. The present Telugu-speaking entity called Andhra Pradesh was created in 1956 through Hyderabad’s merger.
The basis of Andhra Pradesh was a 10-point “Gentlemen’s Agreement” between the then chief ministers of Andhra and Hyderabad. This included the creation of a regional committee for Telangana whose recommendations would “normally be accepted by the government and the state legislature”. Another understanding was that 40 per cent of cabinet members would be from Hyderabad/Telangana. There would be a deputy chief minister too, so that either the C M or the deputy C M would be from Telangana.
However, there has been a strong assertion of a distinct Telangana identity through two major agitations in 1969 and in 2000. These sharpened the Telangana people’s sense of discrimination and highlighted the region’s educational backwardness and “developmental backlog”.
Statehood’s proponents rightly argue that Telangana hasn’t received state development assistance proportional to its size. But semi-arid Rayalaseema too can claim that it’s underdeveloped. Only coastal Andhra, with its prosperous agrarian economy and rapid industrial growth around Vishakhapatnam, is decisively more developed than Telangana.
Telangana has an even stronger case on its share of the waters of rivers Krishna and Godavari. Sixty-nine per cent of the Krishna’s catchment area, and 79 per cent of the Godavari’s, is located in Telangana. Internationally, water-sharing is decided on the basis of this area.
But opponents of Telangana’s statehood club Hyderabad with Telangana to argue that Telangana’s per capita development indices are higher than coastal Andhra’s or Rayalaseema’s. Besides, Hyderabad’s prosperity is the result of investments by businessmen from the other regions, especially coastal Andhra, known for its aggressive enterprise in construction, trading and industry. This is true. Many non-Telangana people have settled in Hyderabad for decades; it would be unfair to displace or disenfranchise them.
Telangana has the first claim on Hyderabad: it’s literally at the region’s heart. But it’s also logical to treat Hyderabad as a special category, where some degree of regional representation and sharing is possible. A truly federal India ought to go beyond the “Chandigarh Union Territory” formula, and try something that would substantially meet divergent sub-regional expectations.
There are useful precedents from elsewhere. Italy and Slovenia agreed to share sovereignty over Trieste, an ethnically distinct region. The Autonomous Aland Islands in Finland have a Swedish ethnic majority. Above all, there is Hong Kong, where China set up a Special Administrative Region in 1997 while taking it over from Britain.
Hyderabad can be the capital exclusively of Telangana, and also have a city government in which all the local people participate. We, South Asians, need imaginative federalist solutions that reconcile contradictory regional and sub-regional demands and aspirations.
Can the Congress summon up the courage to think differently? That’s hard to say. But it’s clear that the alternative is endless chaos and bloodletting.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: prafulbidwai1@ yahoo.co.in