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India's state divisions evolve past language

The linguistic borders used to shape the country may no longer be adequate.

Last Modified: 04 Aug 2013 17:50
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Decades of demands for political autonomy have been realised for the historically marginalised Telangana [Reuters]

News of the creation of India's newest state, Telangana, came as a long-awaited victory for many in the historically marginalised region, but it also renewed debate among political analysts - does Indian federalism need a paradigm shift, and do states based on shared languages work anymore?

Moments after the ruling Congress party endorsed plans to split Andhra Pradesh into the northern Telangana state and the coastal Seemandhra state, the hashtag #Telangana surged up the list of India's trending Twitter topics.

Hyderabad, the state capital, will be shared between the two new states for the next ten years.

The establishment of the country's 29th state has been a decades-long demand from a region known for the presence of Naxalites - armed Communist groups in India reportedly involved in insurgency and exploitation, whereas Seemandhra, its slightly better-off coastal neighbour, has few such groups.

The latest bifurcation may or may not bring relief to Telangana's activists, but some commenters on social media websites - aside from those who joked about how everything from cuisine to criminal groups will have to be split in two - bemoaned the success of the movement as a step back for a united India.

Many Twitter users said the move would have saddened the country's first interior minister, the late Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who in 1947 integrated princely states and provinces from the British Raj into then-newly independent India.

According to a local journalist, the general mood in Andhra Pradesh remains mixed. Some residents feel resassured and confident that the new state will bring safety and business investment. Others think the new state is an affront to their cultural identity. 

Meanwhile, researchers and journalists who have been watching the Telangana situation brew in recent years have said that the split was inevitable for Andhra Pradesh - which in 1956 became the first state to be founded on the basis of a dominant language, Telugu.

What is interesting is the evolution of Indian state identity, as this is the first time a state with a linguistic basis has been further divided.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr, an editorial consultant at the Daily News and Analysis, said that the rationale behind Andhra Pradesh and other language-based states, such as Kerala for Malayalam speakers and Gujarat for Gujarati speakers, dates back to the 1950s when India was in its infancy.

"The logic behind that was, in a democracy, the language of the people should be the language of state government," he told Al Jazeera. "Perhaps there is a reason to re-look at that. But there was sufficient logic behind it at the time."

India's 29th state, Telangana.

The problem never arose in most states in central and northern India, where Hindi is the predominant language of communication and administration.

Over the years, however, that thinking was challenged - as demands for greater autonomy and statehood started to take on ethnic elements.

For example, in 2000 the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh were formed to give tribal groups greater sovereignty.

James Chiriyankandath, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in the University of London, said that the splitting of Andhra Pradesh was a much more significant departure from the original concept of Indian federalism.

"There is considerable potential for this kind of trend to develop, which will create a very different kind of India," he said. "Not an India based on linguistic states, but one based on a whole range of distinguishing factors - culture, region, religion."

Following the announcement that Telangana would become its own state, movements in Bundelkhand in central India, Purvanchal in northern India and Gorkhaland in eastern India vigorously renewed their calls for the formation of their own states. They say they have also been the victims of political marginalisation and chronic underdevelopment.

State first, Indian second?

The uproar surrounding the reorganisation of Andhra Pradesh has also called into question Indian identity and its paradoxical nature, according to an opinion piece in The Hindu newspaper.

"It led one to wonder what it is that people identify with - a region, a regional culture, an administrative entity, or an abstraction at its best, called 'state'?" wrote Uma Maheshwari, an independent journalist based in Hyderabad.

When asked about her column, Maheshwari told Al Jazeera that many Indian states based on language do not represent the different ethnic groups residing in those areas. "The creation of many states along the lines of language has not helped," said Maheshwari, who recently penned a book on Telangana and Andhra Pradesh's major river, the Godavari. "For some people it is just an idea. How do you say I am an Indian?"

India's new state stirs calls for further devolution

She cautioned that she "does not see formation of state[s] as an end in itself".

Valerian Rodrigues, a professor at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said that, had there been any further attempts to ignore the Telangana cause, with its distinct culture and economic and political disparity, chaos would have ensued.

He added that, while there were political justifications for the suspiciously well-timed announcement, which could help the Congress Party during the 2014 general elections, carving out states without a broad cultural consensus is not the answer. 

"Telangana, it was a very different case - I would not push the other claimants of statehood based on regional inequality," Rodrigues said.

It will take at least another six months for Telangana to officially become a new state, and the issue of sharing Hyderabad, the state's economic hub and home to a massive information technology sector, has caused some politicians in Seemandhra to consider alternative capitals - and even resign in protest.

There are also concerns that the new state may go in the direction of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, where armed Maoist groups have become more influential, through the use of violence.

Despite the complications that will continue to arise, Rao said this should be a lesson in developing criteria for forming new states, and that while linguistic boundaries may have once been a model of political empowerment - and currently work for European nations, for example - it may not make much sense much longer in India's future.

Besides, India has much more on its plate to think about, such as a slowing economy.

"The main theme song of India now will be its economic role," Rao said. "The whole focus will be on that. With the new state, whether they will survive will depend on their economic growth."

Follow Umika Pidaparthy on Twitter: @UmikaP

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Al Jazeera
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