Monday, August 19, 2013

Decoding India's Telangana conundrum By Mayurika Chakravorty

This week, India's ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition decided to create Telangana - a new state that will be formed out of the existing state of Andhra Pradesh. National and social media have been abuzz with the issue, keeping the country "informed" of parliamentary developments through minute-by-minute live feeds. 

The media frenzy reached a crescendo with the announcement by the central government (led by the Congress party) had endorsed the formation of the state. But why such commotion? The last time new states (three) were carved out of larger states in 2000, there was not such a hue and cry. 

To many the issue is really about Hyderabad - the city that since the information technology boom of the 1990s has been a thriving economic center. It recent years it has also been the haven of a real estate mafia who rode on the wings of that boom and an unholy nexus between caste and regional politics. 

Also palpable in the tirade of the people unhappy with the formation of Telangana is a sense of injustice as they claim that the success of Hyderabad was somehow the joint work of the people from both Telangana and coastal Andhra regions, and hence both should have a piece of the cake (or jewel!). Such views can only be understood as a rather short-sighted and historically challenged perspective on the issue. 

A shared 'jewel'?

First, not many people outside the region know that Hyderabad's success is not a modern phenomenon - it did not start with the 1990s IT boom. 

Ruled by the Qutubshahis and then the Nizam, it was one of the most developed cities in medieval times, with enviable urban infrastructure unparalleled anywhere else in the country. It retained its autonomy throughout British rule (the history of the complex negotiations between the Nizam, his knighted deputee Sir Salar Jung and the Imperial crown is in itself an engaging topic), and after independence the Telangana region with Hyderabad as its capital remained one of the richest revenue-generating zones in southern India. 

Following independence, the Indian government annexed the Telangana region, then known as Hyderabad state, and the first democratic elections were held in 1952 with Burugula Ramakrishna Rao (Congress Party) becoming its first elected chief minister. 

It needs to be noted that the coastal Andhra and Rayalseema regions were not a part of this state and were in fact a part of the newly formed Andhra state carved out of the Madras Presidency. Andhra state was formed in 1953 with Kurnool as its capital. So when, why, and how did these two separate regions - Andhra and Telangana (or Hyderabad state) come together? The answers to these questions are the key to understanding the formation (or rather re-formation) of Telangana state today. 

An unholy matrimony

Telangana (Hyderabad state) and Andhra states were merged on November 1, 1956, with this merger termed by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a "matrimonial alliance having provisions for divorce" - and there have been petitions for divorce right from the day the alliance was formed, culminating in yesterday's declaration of a "separation". 

The State Reorganization Report of 1955, on the basis of which this merger was effected, stated the following:

The existing Andhra State has faced a financial problem of some magnitude ever since it was created and in comparison with Telangana the existing Andhra State has a low per capita revenue. Telangana, on the other hand, is much less likely to be faced with financial embarrassment.

The report also strongly notes the dissent of the people of Telangana region and their unwillingness to form the larger Andhra Pradesh (it is called Vishalandhra in the report). It states "Telangana claims to be progressive and from an administrative point of view, unification, it is contended, is not likely to confer any benefits on this area." 

It further voices the anxieties of the Telangana people:

One of the principal causes of opposition of Vishalandhra also seems to be the apprehension felt by the educationally backward people of Telangana that they may be swamped and exploited by the more advanced people of the coastal areas. In the Telangana districts outside the city of Hyderabad, education is woefully backward. The result is that a lower qualification than in Andhra is accepted for public services. The real fear of the people of Telangana is that if they join Andhra they will be unequally placed in relation to the people of Andhra and in this partnership the major partner will derive all the advantages immediately, while Telangana itself may be converted into a colony by the enterprising coastal Andhra. (para 377)

While the report points out the "obvious advantages" - mainly economic concerns as well as control of the river basins - of the merger, it stops short of actually recommending it and instead says:

After taking all these factors into consideration we have come to the conclusions that it will be in the interests of Andhra as well as Telangana, if for the present, the Telangana area is to constitute into a separate State, which may be known as the Hyderabad State with provision for its unification with Andhra after the general elections likely to be held in or about 1961 if by a two-thirds majority the legislature of the residency Hyderabad State expresses itself in favor of such unification. (para 386)

It ends with a hope that the people of Telangana may be eventually persuaded to agree on the merger, while also recognizing the need to respect their wishes if they do not:

Andhra and Telangana have common interests and we hope these interests will tend to bring the people closer to each other. If, however, our hopes for the development of the environment and conditions congenial to the unification of the two areas do not materialize and if public sentiment in Telangana crystallizes itself against the unification of the two states, Telangana will have to continue as a separate unit. (para 388)
However, eventually, the central government, with its visions of large-scale industrialization in the region including the unified Krishna and Godavery river projects - as well the cost-effectiveness of a shared administration - took the decision in favor of the merger. 

To allay the anxieties of the people of Telangana, it was decided that there would be certain provisions or "safeguards" for the people of Telangana and a gentleman's agreement was drafted to this effect. Among other things, it assured reservation for the local people (of Telangana) in government jobs as well as certain domicile conditions besides safeguarding the interests of Muslims and Urdu in public sphere. 

However, there were strong suspicions about these so-called safeguards even then and the Congress PCC Chief J V Narasing Rao stated that "constitutionally speaking, these safeguards had no meaning". 

Significantly the chief minister of Hyderabad state, Burugula Ramakrishna Rao, too was against the merger of Hyderabad state and the Andhra state. He wrote in a letter to the president of the Indian National Congress: "If Telangana is compulsorily merged with Andhra there will be considerable bitterness in Telangana with no adequate advantage on the other side." 

He also expressed apprehension about the relative lack of modern education in Telangana:

Educationally Telangana is very backward as compared to Andhra. They are particularly backward in the study of English for which there are either no facilities or very poor facilities. They are, therefore, afraid that in the matter of service in a bigger province, they will be at a terrific disadvantage. While there are thousands of graduates and MA's in Andhra, there are not even a few hundreds in Hyderabad. No guarantees can level up this great deficiency. Services, therefore, are afraid of an adverse effect of the merger.

Pertinently, Rao also pointed out that in spite of the common Telugu language (thus challenging the linguistic justification of reorganization of states) there were irreconcilable cultural and social differences between the people of the two regions:

Telanganites feel that apart from being Telugus they have built up their own way of life during the last 175 years. This way of life is in many respects different from the way of life of the Telugus in Andhra. The merger, they fear, will destroy this way of life. That is why they are worried.
Besides Telugu, Urdu too was an integral part of the social, cultural and political sphere in the Telangana region and he points out that:

Quite a large number of Telanganites are Urdu-knowing and Urdu-speaking people. For more than a hundred years Urdu has had its place in the life of the people. The administration is carried on in Urdu, records are maintained in Urdu, courts conduct their proceedings in Urdu, lawyers and other professionals carry on their work in Urdu. They are, naturally afraid that the merger would take away the importance of Urdu in their life. They do not like this prospect.

It is indeed significant because the influence of Urdu in the language of the Telanagana region is so prominent that in the thriving film industry in present day Hyderabad dominated by coastal Andhra tycoons, the Urdu-laden Telugu is often ridiculed on screen in the dialogue of comedians. 

Instead of the harmony hoped for by the State Reorganization Committee Report, Rao's letter reveals a dissonance that has unfortunately survived until today. He wrote:

Although the language is common, there are instances that there is no love lost between the Telugus in both the states. The classical example of this mutual dislike can be found in the attitude of Andhra officers during the Razakar agitation and immediately after the accession of Hyderabad [the annexation of Hyderabad state, code named Operation Polo]. While, they say, the Marathi, Kannads and other officers were comparatively kind to the people of Hyderabad, Andhra officers were particularly harsh and unrelenting. There are bad memories left. These memories are so fresh in the minds of the Telanganites that they do not want to be at the mercy of their brethren in Andhra.

Chief minister Burugula Ramakrishna Rao, in spite of opposing the merger, however conceded to the decision taken by the Congress High Command and did not oppose the merger of Andhra and Telangana. Is it not a classic happenstance that the same Andhra and Telangana are being separated now through another difficult decision of the Congress High Command in spite of the misgivings of present Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy? 

Thus, as predicted by several leaders of the time, the alliance of Andhra and Telangana remained a union marked by distrust and aggression and as the coastal Andhra influx over the years inundated and overpowered the social, cultural and political fabric of Telangana, there were periodic pro-Telangana agitation in favor of separating. 

The most damaging in terms of casualties was perhaps the 1969 movement, when more than 300 people died for the Telangana cause; and the most recent one, which most of us know of, was in 2009, spearheaded by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS). Although it was TRS that was at the forefront of the latest movement, it is noteworthy that the final decision to de-merge Andhra and Telangana was taken by the Congress Party, which in the first place, several decades ago, had played the matchmaker to this unholy matrimony. 

What now?
While the separation of Andhra and Telangana may make more sense in the light of the history of the region, it is questionable if historical retribution was the sole impetus behind the demerger initiated by Congress. 

People have pointed out political exigencies with the elections coming up and the Congress Party not otherwise faring too well in the southern state. This might provide a boost to the prospects of the ailing party at least in the Telangana region. 

Congress leaders from the other regions (coastal Andhra and Rayalseema), many of them with real estate and other lucrative business interests in Hyderabad, have strongly lobbied against a separate Telangana. They will no doubt continue to lobby for keeping the state united or at least keep the shared status of Hyderabad for longer (now it is proposed to be a shared capital for the next 10 years). 

It is also significant in this context that while the educated, rich and upper-caste voices from Seema Andhra regions have expressed their dissent against the separation of Telanagana, there are supporters of Telangana in the region from among the Dalits and other marginal communities, one example being the scholar activist Kati Padma Rao from Guntur (coastal Andhra). 

The Telanganaites, meanwhile, will strive to point out the centrality of the historical, cultural and geopolitical significance of Hyderabad city to their movement. For the ordinary people of Hyderabad city though - including the multitudes of young professionals from other states in India - life will go on as usual, probably even with the hope of better prospects if the absurdly inflated real-estate prices crash in the near future, as predicted by the pundits.