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14 August 2014, Gateway House

Telangana: born of historic fissures

The birth of Telangana was a fall-out of the politics of opportunism practiced by both regional and national parties. The idea of federalism in India has to be conscious of these fault lines as they do not bode well for aspirations of cooperative federalism

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The state of Telangana was created on 2 June 2014, almost 60 years after the agitations started for a separate state.

In 1953, Andhra was the first state to be carved out on the basis of language. Three years later, this became Andhra Pradesh after the Telangana districts of the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad were added to it. The movement for a separate state for the Telugu-speaking people forced the-then vacillating Congress to bite the bullet and make language the basis for re-organising states.

But the Telengana ‘sentiment’ survived on the singular agenda of asserting its distinct history and cultural identity. While not a beginning, this registers a new frame of reference for federalism and identity politics.

This essay seeks to explain how a particular alignment of historical, and contingent political and economic factors, contributed to this vigorous emergence of identity politics. It hopes to offer a useful and nuanced understanding of Indian federalism.

To be sure, India is a union and not a federation in the strict sense. The Constituent Assembly and also the more recent Sarkaria Commission, aver the unique `quasi-federal’ nature of the Indian Union, with strong and substantive federal features. The historical evolution of the Union has profound implications for today’s conception of Indian federalism. The formation of Telangana is a useful prism to discuss and illuminate these ideas of Indian federalism.

A brief comparison of the earlier and recent phases of Telangana’s separatist agitation puts this in perspective. The recent phase sustained itself for well over more a decade, and received support from a wide range of social coalitional forces, led prominently by the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS) party. The earlier phase in the 1960s was shorter, although far more intense and violent. It was followed by an equally vigorous counter-agitation. However, in the recent phase, the counter-agitation for retaining a united Andhra Pradesh was rather feeble.

In the first phase, Dr M. Chenna Reddy of the Telangana Praja Samithi (TPS), a renegade Congress leader, spearheaded the movement. The agitation settled after the TPS merged with the Congress and Chenna Reddy became the chief minister. As the eminent scholar Ram Reddy observed, the Telangana ‘sentiment’ was not such a dominant force then. Thus, the ‘politics of accommodation’ prevailed over separatist forces.

In the recent phase, the idea of Telangana was clearly the driving force, and this was because two broad fault lines aligned at this particular historical moment – one, the tenuous social, cultural and political integration of the two regions; and two, the relative economic backwardness of Telangana compared to other parts of Andhra Pradesh.

Let me elaborate on these below.

First, the differential social and cultural identity of the two regions is part of the Indian Union’s DNA – a feature not adequately recognised in conceptualising the idea of Indian federalism. For in spite of the universal spirit of the independence struggle, the overarching imagination of post-independence India is not a homogenous one, but deeply fragmented; simply put, an outcome of bringing together parts of British India and more than 700 princely states.

The former is a set of units directly ruled by the British, and the latter, a highly diverse lot of indirectly-ruled princely states. The Telengana and Seemandhra regions of Andhra Pradesh are differentiated by these two disparate historical trajectories of identity formation.

Though dominated by a Telugu-speaking populace, Telengana has its own composite cultural identity, fused with rich Islamic traditions. The comfort of a homogenous and secular linguistic basis for state re-organisation obscured these uneven cultural landscapes.

As a result, bridges across these fault-lines were never built. The lack of integration between princely states and the rest of India is an inadequately acknowledged and understudied aspect of Indian federalism. John Wood’s exceptional study of Gujarat politics delineated these persisting fault-lines. He concluded that the fault-lines remain as latent political affiliations and influence electoral outcomes.

This lack of integration between princely Telangana and British-ruled Seemandhra was fertile ground for identity politics. This fault-line also aligned with another one, a parallel history of uneven capitalist development.

Unequal economic growth in Andhra Pradesh is also a product of geography, besides history. Even though Hyderabad was ‘better off’ by elusive notions of economics at the time of the two regions’ merger in 1956, Seemandhra undoubtedly was a prosperous and economically vibrant region with well-distributed wealth.

By virtue of geography, the delta regions of both Krishna and Godavari rivers in coastal Andhra were one of the first to receive early British investments, going back to mid-19th century. Comparatively, princely states such as Hyderabad lagged in this respect.

A rich body of scholarly work of N.G. Ranga in the 1930s, Myron Weiner in 1960s, Atul Kohli and Carol Upadhyay in 1980s – documented and discussed the early capitalist development of coastal Andhra districts, and the subsequent emergence of social groups from this region as formidable political forces in Andhra Pradesh.

The first non-Congress chief minister N. T. Rama Rao’s efforts in the 1980s helped divert most of the investments to Hyderabad. Subsequent political regimes facilitated the exponential growth of the Seemandhra capital and as a consequence, the consolidation of political power of leaders from the region.

Such dominance intensified existing feelings of discrimination and alienation among the people of Telangana, deepened social and cultural divide and sharpened notions of distinct identities.

TRS harvested these perceptions and offered a political avenue for channelising resentment, eventually leading to state formation. However, both regional and national parties across the spectrum practised the politics of opportunism, and avoided the substantive issues of addressing uneven development and greater integration.

The idea of federalism in India has to be conscious of these historical fault lines. They can foment antagonistic identity politics — a trend we are already witnessing between Telangana and Andhra over nativity of employees and students, and water-sharing.

Combined with political opportunism, such trends do not augur well for aspirations of cooperative federalism. This calls for a cautious reconsideration of the Centre’s role. Not centralisation, but rather a consolidation of democratic institutions and practices for inter-state coordination as a first step.

Srinivas Chokkakula is a Senior Researcher with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations as part of a special compilation of essays titled Federalising India. You can read more exclusive content here.

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