The burial of linguistic states

The burial of linguistic states

By M.J. Akbar | 22 February, 2014
The UPA government made Telangana the last item on its five-year agenda because it wanted electoral benefits without taking any responsibility for the consequences.

There will be a 30th state in the Union of India. The 29th, Telangana, is not the last post in the reorganisation of India's internal map, set in motion, ironically, in 1952 by a fast-unto-death undertaken by a Gandhian called Potti Sreeramulu for the creation of Andhra Pradesh, a merger of Telugu-speaking districts of Madras province with Hyderabad, the state ruled by the Nizam. The concept of states carved along the dotted lines of language, as opposed to existing "administrative convenience", was formally confirmed in 1955 by the States Reorganisation Commission headed by Sayyid Fazl Ali. The emotional strength of regional identity prevailed over the requirements of governance.

Heaven forbid that the next state should be seeded in the poisons that have dripped across Andhra during the labour pangs of Telangana. As a tired and morally bankrupt Parliament announced the birth, it seemed that we were not separating a state into two units but partitioning a part of India.

The promises made by the UPA government, and endorsed by BJP, are of little worth. Chandigarh was promised to Punjab as its capital during the bifurcation; nearly five decades later, it is still shared space with Haryana. But at least Punjab and Haryana merge into Chandigarh; Hyderabad, the notional common capital, is distant from Seemandhra. Only a very brave seer will predict the possible malevolent consequences.

The creation of Telangana effectively ends linguistic states as a template. Governance, and economic disparity, will be the new and only rationale. Telangana and Seemandhra speak the same tongue. This has happened before. Uttarakhand spoke the same language as Uttar Pradesh, dialect variations apart, and used the same script. But this was an exception. Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were created around ethnicity.

Future separation will revolve around economic incompatibility, spurred by the charge of bias in development.

When the hurly-burly's done, when the battle's lost and won, we need to answer the most basic of questions: is a smaller state any guarantee of good governance?

There is never a single reason for imbalance. Telangana represents the geography of the old Nizamate. Its small, princely elite was far wealthier than competing groups when it joined India in 1948 or became Andhra Pradesh in 1956. But this elite displayed a strange, and even arrogant, indolence when offered the opportunity to enter a modern economy, with the asset base of inherited wealth. It frittered away advantage instead of using its capital as a means of prosperity for itself as well as for its state. You cannot blame anyone else for such incompetence.

Future separation will revolve around economic incompatibility, spurred by the charge of bias in development.

But the problem is not decadence of private capital, but skewered public policy. The primary role of government is to ensure economic growth with justice. Six and a half decades is too long a time to spend in the waiting room of history. The classic democratic model was defined by Abraham Lincoln: government of the people, by the people, for the people. When the third pillar wobbles, the edifice collapses.

So will the creation of Telangana ensure economic development in the new state? The evidence is mixed. Haryana and Punjab both prospered better when apart. More recently, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have flowered from separate beds. Jharkhand, however, has seen wretched, unstable, venal governance ever since it left Bihar. The only expertise of Jharkhand politicians has been horse-trading, and legislators have been all too willing to become horses if the price is right. A Cabinet minister in Jharkhand has just been sacked because he described his own government as the most corrupt ever. Jharkhand is particularly relevant, since the rationale for its divorce from Bihar was that its great natural resources would turn it into a wealthy state. That has not happened.

Whenever there is a divorce, or when a brother splits from a joint family, bitterness is almost inevitable. Some good can come of this, if it leads to economic competitiveness. The urge to do well most often helps opponents to become better. One is a little apprehensive about Telangana and Seemandhra, however, for the means by which the end was achieved has generated levels of passion and hatred never witnessed before in our country.

The reasons for potential conflict are not merely emotional, and therefore transitory. Water is a life-and-death matter for agriculture, and claims are rarely shaped by reason. A second, immediate side-effect is going to be on Hyderabad and the huge investments around its periphery. If amity ebbs, populations begin to drift, and bitterness escalates. Violence hovers in the air. We do not want another septic wound upon the body of India.

The UPA government made Telangana the last item on its five-year agenda because it wanted electoral benefits without taking any responsibility for the consequences. Otherwise the new state could have been created, without all the dangerous drama, two or three years ago. The price will be paid, not just by political parties, but by the nation.

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