In the second part of this Deep Talk interview series, we welcome back historian and author Ramachandra Guha. Earlier in August, the UPA government decided to give the nod to India's 29th state Telangana, predictably setting in motion a spate of debates across the country. Soon after independence, India's states had been reorganised on the basis of language, but in the recent decades the story has changed considerably. Linguistic division appears to have outlived its rational tenure in many cases, and socio-economic, political and administrative concerns have led to the demand for states carved out of the existing ones in several corners of the country.
But if Telangana is created, can others be far behind? Where are the Indian states headed and what does that augur for India's much flaunted unity in diversity? In a videographed conversation with India Together's Subramaniam Vincent and Satarupa Sen Bhattacharya, Ramachandra Guha shares his thoughts on India as a nation of smaller and more numerous states and whether that poses a threat to the national identity itself. Excerpted and edited parts of the conversation are transcribed below the full interview on video below.
Q. You have been a supporter of division of states on linguistic basis and have said that it was an 'effective' solution for the challenges and problems of those times. When you look back through a historian's lens, when do you see language alone beginning to fail as a sustainable basis for statehood? What were the reasons for this?
The first thing to remember is that India as a nation is a young political experiment. It is 66 years .young' compared to western nations like the UK or France or USA. We are still finding our way. We are much more diverse than European countries that set the template for nation making. So we have to evolve and find our own paths. Linguistic division is a particularly European concept; most European countries were constituted on the basis of a single language for the whole country. But because each of our languages has its own robust identity, different script and is even associated with different historical traditions, Gandhi promised linguistic division of states. This was introduced in 1956.
Even at that time, questions were raised about Telangana. They had a peculiar history stemming from the fact that it was under the Nizam's rule, they didn't have a coastline, and the region was relatively backward. Similarly, there were reservations in UP's case, too. But overall, linguistic division was an effective response to the demands of the time, which is also borne out by the fact that unlike Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which have seen civil wars being fought over language, Indian states have co-existed largely peacefully.
Now, at the second stage of reorganisation, the question in front of India is, how should be break up our territories? People who opposed linguistic states feared that this could lead to the .balkanisation' of the country. If you give a state for Telugu speakers, then they might ask for a nation of their own. But that didn't happen. In fact, linguistic states furthered the unity of the country.
Now we need not fear about the unity of the country. We can think of further division but this division must be done on a rational basis. I think the problem with Telangana is that it was done without such a rational deliberation.
This first redrawing of the map was done by a commission of three acknowledged experts who were part of the States Reorganisation Committee. Now again, I think we should have made a commission which would have dispassionately examined many alternatives and then gone about it.
If today there were to be a second States Reorganisation Commission, who do you think should ideally comprise that and what would be the debates or considerations before them?
Well, let's look at the first one to begin with; the first SRC had a judge, a historian and a social worker. Now, I don't think historians are needed anymore. At that time we needed to know the antiquity of the demands for Andhra and Karnataka, for example, and look into the historic linguistic zones. Now probably you need an economist to know whether the new states are going to be economically viable. You could perhaps also need a jurist or a political scientist, and perhaps, even a social worker.
Now, the first SRC was comprised of all non-political people. But unfortunately in the last 15 or 30 years, most committees are headed by politicians except when they have dealt with economics, in which case too it has often been headed by the finance minister. In our original conception, Governors of states were also supposed to be non-political, but that is absolutely lost. So I do not really want to recommend who should be part of the commission, but in general, as I said an economist, a jurist and a social worker.
The present government promised a second States Reorganisation Commission in 2004. That was the basis of their alliance with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) for that election. Once they came to power they needed the support of the Left, which in that Lok Sabha held nearly 70 seats. The CPM was dead against the issue of Gorkhaland, and thus the UPA were too scared to appoint an SRC and Telangana was taken up on an adhoc basis.
It may not still be too late to have a second SRC. We have two and a half times the population of America but far fewer states. America has 50 while we have 28. I do think that smaller states are likely to provide more focussed governments. But the logic of how, where and when to divide them is something that has to be decided by experts, not arbitrarily. Certainly not with the next elections in mind or by way of succumbing to pressure by popular movements.
So in the way that concessions have been made to Telangana, you see that ad hoc logic creeping in?
Absolutely. If you look at the first SRC, it looked at many demands. Similarly, if we were to have a second SRC, it could look at the many demands today, for example for Vidarbha or look at the logical reason behind dividing UP into several states, and so on.
Now, in 2000, three new states were created - Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh are certainly better off having been separate. Jharkhand may be more problematic because of the complexity of the region where there is a combination of political factors, mining mafia, naxalism and other issues to be sorted out. But the best example of small states working well is the breakup of Punjab in 1966 into Himachal, Punjab and Haryana, and all these three states have done extremely well. One was a largely Sikh state, one was a largely Hindu state and one was a hill state, so there was a kind of ethnic cum ecological logic to that breakup and it worked extremely well.
A culture of deference, sycophancy
Why Assam burns again
So, would you say that the demand for Bodoland and Gorkhaland, that will accentuate now based on the concession to Telangana, should also be sorted out logically based on larger considerations?
I think it should be done dispassionately. Each case has to be assessed independently and individually. Whether the state would be viable enough, if it has enough economic resources, where should the capital be, where should boundaries be drawn, how should existing disputes be resolved - each of these has to be carefully thought through. This has been rushed in Telangana's case because Telangana is much larger than Gorkhaland and Bodoland. It can bring more MPs to parliament. The creation of Telangana is based on the Congress' calculation that they are not doing well in the run up to the next election. So it is clearly a cynical, opportunistic and political decision.
It still may be the right thing, in the sense that there may be a logic for Telangana. But the way it's been done is rather unfortunate.
In most cases, however, we see that it is finally a question of giving in to the popular movements and political considerations of course. Following Telangana there is quite a bit of unrest especially in the East, over Gorkhaland and Bodoland. Do you see that as a threat to the development of the country?
No, it is definitely not a threat to the idea of India, these are not issues that should get us excessively worried. It is not as if India is going to breakup or balkanise. India is quite comfortable having a lot of diversity under one territory.
How to work these divisions out is, I would say, an experiment. We will evolve, there will be friction and conflict as we have already seen. There are issues, for example the question of Belgaum between Karnataka and Maharastra is still unresolved, as is the relation of Biharis to Mumbai or Maharastra. The important thing to recognise about India as a nation is this: because it is so large, diverse and complex - and probably the most reckless political experiment in new history - it can never be conflict-free. The challenge is to modulate this conflict, to make it manageable so that it does not go out of hand. And as with linguistic states, I feel smaller states will also not go out of hand.
Some Indians get absolutely paranoid and fearful, if they hear anything about a strike or some unrest, for example if the Darjeeling hills are closed for 3 days, or Osmania university is closed and buses are burning in Hyderabad. There is gloom and doom all around and people begin to talk of the end of the IT miracle and India's growth.
I think in such situations, one should be reminded that USA became independent in 1776 and 90 years later they fought a civil war in which more than 10 million people died before they could decide on the rights of slaves and what kind of central structure they needed. So, nation building is a complicated process, it is a tortuous process ridden with tension, suspicion and conflict and that's how it has been all over the world and and that's how it is going to be in India. In fact, I find it striking that given our size and complexity and poverty, how little conflict and bloodshed we have seen over the issues of nationhood. We should not be depressed with all this. That's the logic of reconciling diversity with unity and there will be these kinds of interruptions.
Let's go to the individual leaders. On the Telangana side you have got KCR and Subhash Ghising for Gorkhaland. What is your sense of these individual leaders themselves and of the role that they seem to play in creation politics? Will historians look back 50 years later and say that these are the people who really made these states happen or do you think new states will be seen as a flow of politics that was going to happen anyway?
It is going to happen one way or the other. The genuine reason is popular resentment. There is popular resentment in the Darjeeling hills about the patronising attitude of the Bengali speaking people from the plains. In case of Telangana there was an informal agreement that the Chief Minister would alternate from the regions but that never happened; the more powerful politician has always been from coastal Andhra and that was cause for discontent.
There is also a question of size. I think Mayawati is eminently sensible when she says UP should be broken down into four or five states. Can you have 200 million people, which is a population much larger than that of Germany, in one state? Also, in very large states, the distance of remote areas from the capitals can be an issue. These are some of the issues that mandate the logic for a smaller state. Leaders must capitalise on this. Even if Subhash Ghising never existed there would be a demand for Gorkhaland.
If you look at Telangana, the movement goes back to the 60s. In the 50s there was a compromise with the SRC, in the 60s there was an informal agreement between the Telangana and the Seemandhra leaders, in 1969 there was the first manifestation of the Telangana movement saying their demands had not been recognised; it was a massive popular movement. So there has always been a real sentiment behind these demands, whether in Gorkhaland, Bodoland or Telengana. In the case of Vidarbha, it is the sense of discrimination by Western Maharashtra that has led to the popular movement. In the case of UP, it is a question of administrative logic and optimum governance. Can you really have such a large state? So, there are different issues at work in these different places.
Since you mentioned Vidarbha, a recent media report mentions a second layer of debate even among proponents for Vidarbha on what is going to be the primary language of the new state when created - Hindi or Marathi? So, from language we came down to economics and sociology and then the debate turns back to language again. Where does this stop?
That is very interesting. In the case of Telangana it will always be Telugu. Just as in UP and MP, the newer states will also speak Hindi. In the case of Gorkhaland, it will be Nepali, but people will of course be free to speak in Bangla or Santhali. That's true of many of our cities as well. Bangalore, for example, is the capital of a Kannada-speaking state, but in some parts of Bangalore, Tamil could be the lingua franca. But the official language of Gorkhaland will be Nepali, the official language of Telangana will be Telugu just as the official language in Chhatisgarh or Jharkhand will be Hindi (the same as in the parent states).
Vidarbha is an interesting case, because it falls on a borderline of sorts between the old Central Provinces and Maharashtra. there are areas which are Hindi-speaking and others that are Marathi-speaking, but in my opinion it will still be Marathi speaking. I don't think language should be an issue of major controversy between Vidarbha and Maharastra. In most of western Maharastra, people speak both Hindi and Marathi, so it may not be a major flashpoint in my opinion.
But isn't there always going to be a basis for a further subdivision - that's my question...
As I said, all this is an evolving experiment. In British times, we had 3 great presidencies - Bengal, Madras and Bombay, and then we had the Central Provinces, the United Provinces, the Punjab; later, Bihar and Orissa were carved out from Bengal. So there were eight or nine, which was clearly not feasible. So we went from 8 or 9 to 29. If you go to 40 or 45 it is ok. We will find our equilibrium somewhere - it may be 50 or 100 years from now, but you will find it.
Again, let me underline, we are a large, complex and youthful political experiment and it is in the nature of things to have such roadblocks, hiccups or conflicts. So long as they don't lead to civil wars of the American kind, where 8 or 10 million people died and left behind scars for generations to come, I don't feel this should be viewed as a serious a problem. As a historian, I am detached about it. I mean, there are many other serious problems in India - problems of crime, corruption, governance, administration, violence against women and so forth, but going from 28 to 40 states is something we should be able to manage without much problem.
So on the three examples of 2000, you said Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh justify the division of states. But what has really changed for the people in these states - for the average person in say, Uttarakhand?
The change may be slow, but there is a sense among the people that my capital is now closer. I have grown up in Uttarakhand, and I know that there was a very clear feeling of suppression among the hill people before division, a feeling that they were discriminated against by people from the plains. They were very far from the capital, referred to as .Pahadis' and looked upon as backward. Just as there is between the Bengalis and the hill people of Darjeeling. That is why there was a major popular movement for the hills to have its own governance.
Now, smaller states are necessary but not a sufficient condition of government. You may still have corrupt politicians who disgust you or sectarian conflicts that you are worried about. But, on the whole, I feel if you ask the people of Uttarakhand today if they would want to rejoin UP, they will say no.
In Chattisgarh you have much better welfare administration now, because it is a smaller state. You have a much better PDS scheme than in Madhya Pradesh, for example, as you have a particular politician Raman Singh who is focussed on the PDS scheme. He has made it his programme and the scale is such that you can manage it.
Similarly Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh are all small states functioning reasonably well. I am not saying smaller states will solve all the problems of the citizens. They will still have issues of corruption, taxes, public services, environmental degradation, poverty, regardless of size. But on the whole, in the experience of smaller states, with the exception of Jharkhand, people feel a greater connect with those who rule them.
Is it possible that smaller states might give citizens better hope of fixing all these other problems such as corruption as well?
Certainly yes, but when we talk about political decentralization we should never lose sight of empowering our panchayats and municipalities. That is very important. That should go along with the creation of smaller states but that has not happened. Except in a few places like Kerala, proper financial devolution to panchayats and municipalities has not taken place. The 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution have all these provisions, but to enable those provisions the state government has to act.
Bangalore wants devolution of power from Delhi to Bangalore, but Bangalore also has to devolve power to Davangere and Dharwad. That is where there is an issue. The way that Panchayati Raj had been conceived of has not been tried except in a few states.
In Karnataka it was tried under Ramakrishna Hegde's government in 1980s. But when the Congress came back to power, they took back much of that and restored the power to the DM and MLA. The powers that were with the Mandal and Taluk panchayat under the Janata government were taken back. So we have to think through many of these issues, but in theory, what you say is right: problems of corruption and bad governance are easier to tackle if the seat of power is closer to you.
You have profiled 19 leaders in your book Makers of Modern India. Do you think there is any one leader among them who would have staunchly supported a second reorganisation of states based on newer considerations . political or socio-economic, not linguistic?
I think, Ambedkar would. He even wrote in an essay in 1955 sharing his thoughts on linguistic states, that the principal of a state should be "one state, one language" and not "one language one state." This meant that within a state there has to be one language, but you could have two states with one language. So you may have two Marathi speaking states or two Telugu speaking states. He understood this distinction even then.
Ambedkar, of course, had a keen interest in federalism, he had a legal training and an economic training. Among all these leaders, probably he would have understood the logic of such division most of all. Possibly even Rajagopalachari, but definitely Ambedkar. His formulation of "one state, one language" and not "one language one state" meant that you could divide Maharashtra into two, or you can divide Karnataka into two tomorrow. So his writings do hold a clue that he did not rule out further divisions.
So, it was not as if linguistic reorganisation in 1956 was the final word then?
No, I think linguistic reorganisation was a reaction to the events of the time; it was an improvised reaction to the events of the time which worked for 20-30 years and then, slowly, more states started to be created. And it was an incremental process. In 1956, some states were created - Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh were formed and Orissa was consolidated; only in 1960 was Maharashtra created, in 1966 Punjab and Haryana were formally constituted, and only in 1970s did Meghalaya break away from Assam. So if you look at the whole process, it is slowly evolving; it is not as if there was 1956 and now there is 2013. Between these two years, various new states have been created. So it is a slow process; we should reach equilibrium in 40-50 states and that shouldn't be anything to be worried about.
Was there anyone in the list of 19 people - the early leaders of the nation - who might be a staunch opponent of any further breaking up of states?
At that stage both Nehru and Rajagopalachari were opposed to the creation of the states. Nehru was always fearful of what had happened with Partition. Don't forget that the Congress had always stood for a united India, and that idea had been wrecked by the creation of Pakistan. So Nehru felt that since religion had formed the basis for the separation of the nation, so might language. He didn't really understand that linguistic diversity and national unity were perfectly compatible. Rajagopalachari was initially sentimentally attached to the idea of undivided Madras. But both gave up their opposition; once the SRC was created in 1956, both Nehru and Rajagopalachari saw clearly that this was the way forward. But as far as further division is concerned, as we now witness in demands for Telangana or Bodoland, I think only Ambedkar might have seen the possibility which he clarified with his formulation.
I will just point to one quote in the epilogue to your book India after Gandhi, where you quoted historian Michael Howard; he said "No nation can be born without war, no self conscious community could establish itself as a new and independent actor on the world scene without an armed conflict or the threat of one." But with increasingly divisive calls that we hear from various parts of the country, do you ever fear that Howard's affirmation may come to bear upon the formation of states or even the fragmentation of India?
I don't think so. Howard's formulation is based on the European experience. He is a historian of Europe and he may have felt that whatever happened in Europe would set the template for what happens everywhere else. I agree India faces multiple problems. I am not the one to underestimate the problems we face as a nation, as a democracy or as a society. But war is not something which defines us. Enmity with another nation does not define us, though some people would like to define India as anti-Pakistan. Pakistan is defined as anti-India - that's the stated definition, that is why it was created, to separate out of India. Among the Pakistani military and a large section of the political elite, their self definition is "We are against India, we are not India."
That may be mirrored to some extent in some jingoistic television channel or the other, but by and large we know that our self definition is something else. It has more to do with our attempts to reconcile our unity in diversity, our continuous struggle to overcome historic inequalities and discrimination - against Dalits, women, our ceaseless struggle to maintain peace and harmony among the major religious communities and so on.
We recognise the fact that the Indian idea or experiment is not about war, not about conquering territories, even though we do need a robust army and air force to protect our borders. But I think the European experience is born out of war. The collective national memory of France is of wars against Britain or Germany; the collective national memory of Poland is of wars against Russia or Germany. That's how it was historically and Howard has reacted to that. However, in India that is not the case. Though there may be some people who may want us to define ourselves as anti-Pakistan above all, I think that is an impoverished definition of India.
What would you say then about the secessionist movements within India, let us say in Kashmir or the North-east?
Those are real issues, particularly Kashmir. In Nagaland, there seems to be a kind of recession since there is a ceasefire and there has been no armed conflict between the Indian army and the insurgents for years. Manipur is a more complicated case, there are lots of insurgent groups there, but no clear secessionist movement.
Kashmir remains an alive and complicated issue, very fragile. It is a dispute between India and Pakistan and it is not easy to see it being resolved in the next 30 to 40 years. It would require focussed and very far-sighted statesmanship in Delhi, it would require a bipartisan collaboration between the BJP and the Congress. Whoever is in power should cooperate with the Opposition to move forward on Kashmir. So Kashmir is a complicated issue and that will certainly take time.
But in the final analysis, when viewed comparatively, the Indian experiment of marrying national unity with diversity is doing reasonably ok. On the other hand,
the Indian experiment with eliminating poverty, creating an inclusive and fair society, creating transparent and impartial systems of administration . those are
not working very well. That is where there is cause for concern, not over the unity of India.