Stop and think (India)


The Indian union is going through a shake up, with aspirations of statehood rising in the mainland with much vigour. First a Telengana is to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh. Then there will be a Bundelkhand and Harit Pradesh from Uttar Pradesh; a Mithilanchal from Bihar; a Vidharbha from Maharashtra; a Saurashtra from Gujarat; a Gorkhaland from West Bengal; and a Coorg from Karnataka. This is not to mention all the rumblings in the Northeast, which could give rise not just to a Nagalim or a Bodoland, but a state for every one of the myriad insurgencies. Kashmir, of course, is its own long story, but a different one.

Coerced into announcing the beginning of the process of fashioning Telengana as a separate state from the rest of Andhra Pradesh, the Congress at the Centre had not bargained for the fallout of having buckled under the pressure of the deteriorating health of Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) President K Chandrasekhar Rao, who was on an indefinite fast. Violent demonstrations by those opposing the split followed Home Minister P Chidambaram's announcement. The ruling Congress was even subjected to the spectacle of its own MLAs resigning over the Centre's move in solidarity with MLAs of other parties unhappy with the decision. But barely had the Andhra flames died down when the agitation for Gorkhaland picked up steam, perhaps encouraged by the Centre's seeming benevolence in agreeing to carve out Telengana, a demand that was first voiced in 1969, and had surfaced now and again over the past three decades.

Indeed, none of the demands for statehood are new. All the movements demand the creation of a new state symbolising adequate representation, control over the resources of the region, economic prosperity, and the nurturing of ethnic and regional identity. For the first time, demands by sitting chief ministers such as Uttar Pradesh's Mayawati to review state boundaries, have not, however, goaded the Congress-led government at the Centre to consider setting up the next States Reorganisation Commission, after the last one more than 50 years ago. Indeed, besides the in-depth work that went into re-organising the Indian federation soon after Independence, trying to create a nation state out of a motley bunch of former princely states, feudal enclaves and former-British provinces, the process of state formation has been ad hoc and responding to powerful populism.

No different
In 2000, three new states were formed – Uttaranchal (now called Uttarakhand) out of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand out of Bihar, and Chhattisgarh out of Madhya Pradesh. The main rationale for the slicing was the marginalisation and underdevelopment of these regions while within the larger state. It is no coincidence that Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, both mineral rich and with a large Adivasi population, were economically underdeveloped, with abysmal indices in health and education. Uttarakhand, also under-developed, has immense natural resources in terms of hydropower, agro-forestry and tourism. But almost a decade after these states got their own bureaucracies and political class, has there been any transformation in the lives of the common citizen?

Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are reeling under a Maoist insurgency which neither have been able to tackle at the state level, constantly looking to the Centre for funds, security forces and schemes. Decentralisation and statehood do not seem to have made any significant dent in the despercate poverty, hunger and malnutrition in any of these new states; instead it provides new opportunities to the local elite for corruption.

While state re-organisation in the 1950s was done mainly on the basis of language, the newly emerging demands for ethnic-based states have the potential to cause greater rifts than did the language criterion. For, it would be hard to find a corner of India that is not multi-ethnic and multi-religious, the rallying cries of ethnic separatists notwithstanding. Rarely are movements for statehood or a "land of ones own" accompanied by realistic strategies to ensure minority rights and genuine representation for the marginalised in the affairs of the state. The "outsider" bogey, so readily used to drum up the fear that lurks very close to the surface, must be examined more closely, beyond language, ethnic or regional affiliations. Amidst the din of shrill calls for statehood in the name of the oppressed, it is well worth remembering the notion of 'belonging' put forth by the popular trade union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi who worked among iron ore miners in Dalli Rajhara in Durg, in the present-day Chhattisgarh state. In answer to who is the true Chhattisgarhi, Niyogi suggested that an individual who worked for the interests of the poorest person in Chhattisgarh is the true Chhattisgarhi, whether or not he or she was a child of the soil. State re-organisation and making more manageable units out of unwieldy, highly populous states is certainly laudable, if the implementation continues to reflect the motive – people's interest. Clearly, it is time for the state and civil society to take stock of the advantages and disadvantages of existing states and come up with a workable plan on the basis of economic viability vis-a-vis marginalisation. Rather than go in for the ad hoc truncation of existing states, India would do well to go in for a States Reorganisation Commission, once again.

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Himal Southasian