Telangana, Again

Telangana & Proposed States of India MapThe very first GeoCurrents article, posted on December 20, 2009, examined the possibility that the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh would be divided in two, with a new state of Telangana emerging from its northwestern districts. Little has been done to advance the issue for the past four years—until this week. But India’s ruling Congress Party has now given its approval to the idea. Although a number of additional steps are necessary before a new state emerges, it does seem likely now that it will happen. As a result, a July 31 headline in the Times of India reads, “Telangana: At 66, Mother India gets ready for her 29th baby.”

Informed sources in India claim that politics lies behind the decision, as elections loom and the success of the Congress Party is uncertain. As the Times of India article cited above blandly puts it, “The desire to do well in the Telangana region appears to be the main driver behind Tuesday’s decision. … Political circles estimate that the Congress calculation is to sweep the Telangana region.” The decision, however, will hurt the party in other parts of Andhra Pradesh. Major anti-Telangana protests have already broken out elsewhere in the state, resulting in the ransacking of a Congress Party office and the mobilization of paramilitary troops to keep the peace. Six Congress Party members of the Andhra Pradesh assembly have also resigned in protest. As the comments sections of Indian newspaper articles indicate, many people in India have extremely strong opinions on such matters.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the new state will satisfy the demands of the hard-core Telangana advocates. According to the agreement worked out by the Congress Party, the city of Hyderabad—located in the core of Telangana—will remain the capital of both states for at least ten years. But as NDTV reports, “The Telangana Rashtra Samithi or TRS, which has spearheaded the movement for a separate Telangana in the last few years, had warned the Congress earlier in the day that there would be ‘severe resistance’ against making Hyderabad a shared capital.”

The details of this shared-capital system have not yet been worked out. Some sources have speculated that Hyderabad itself could become a union territory, and hence not part of either state for which it will serve as the capital. Such a system is already in place elsewhere in India: the planned city of Chandigarh (designed in good part by Le Corbusier) is a union territory as well as the capital of both Punjab and Haryana. But at least Chandigarh is located between these two states, whereas Hyderabad is situated near the center of Telangana.  (India Today, however, reports that “The Congress leadership is … understood to have given up the idea of union territory status to Hyderabad due to reservations by Telangana leaders.)

India saw the emergence of three new states in the year 2000. The break-up of Hyderabad and the creation of Telangana, however, would be the first division of a so-called linguistic state, one provided to secure a political territory for an ethnolinguistic group. Andhra Pradesh was itself created, with some difficulty, in the 1950s to satisfy the political aspirations of the Telugu-speaking people, a large part of whose territory had previously been joined with that of Tamil-speakers in Madras State. But as the Telangana issue shows, linguistic sub-nationalism in India can be trumped by other consideration. Telangana is itself rooted in part in the pre-independence political order of India, as it was previously the core domain of the Nizam, an extraordinarily wealthy Muslim ruler subservient to the British raj (as is explained in the original GeoCurrents post on the issue).

Telangana Fact MapThe recent drive for separate Telanaga statehood, however, has been based mostly on complaints about neglect and economic marginalization. Although Hyderabad is a thriving city, noted for its high-tech firms, many of its hinterlands are extremely poor and beset with Maoist revolutionary activities. As is common in India, disputes over water resources figure prominently in the conflict. Many pro-statehood advocates have been infuriated by actual or perceived injustices. According to a recent article from The Economist, “Activists say that in the past three years over 300 young people have killed themselves over Telangana, demanding political control that would benefit locals. Many set themselves on fire in public.”

The pending statehood of Telangana has inspired proponents of other would-be states in India. As can be seen on the map, numerous proposals for new political divisions have been put forth. According to the BBC, advocates of Gorkhaland in what is now northern West Bengal have been particularly exercised over the pending split of Andhra Pradesh. Unlike Telangana, however, any future Gorkha state would be based on ethnolinguistic criteria. As the BBC article explains:

Meanwhile, the main Gorkha ethnic group in India’s West Bengal state has stepped up its demand for a separate state for Nepali-speaking Gorkhas in the tea-producing Darjeeling hills, reports Subir Bhaumik from Calcutta. “Now that Delhi is creating Telangana, it should consider our long-term aspirations for a separate Gorkhaland. Our region is totally different from West Bengal which is a Bengali-dominated state,” he said.

Assuming that a new state of Telanaga is indeed created, we might expect deeper agitation for the creation of other new states elsewhere in the country. In India, first-order administrative divisions are of tremendous significance.