On January 3 this year, A. Sridhar Reddy, the founder of the Sampoorna Telangana Praja Samithi in 1969, the organisation that spearheaded the movement for a separate Telangana, passed away. Sridhar Reddy was the president of the Osmania University Arts College, and literally began that movement in the Arts College cafeteria where he used to hold court. The Arts College used to be the political nerve centre in Hyderabad. As the idea began to catch fire, out of work politicians like Dr Marri Channa Reddy latched on to the idea and soon stole the ground from under Sridhar Reddy. Sridhar Reddy, who was a friend, was always afraid that the movement will be betrayed no sooner that dissident Congressmen were accommodated. He was right.
The 1971 war with Pakistan which led to the liberation of Bangladesh gave all the Telangana Congressmen a good enough reason to hitch their stars to Indira Gandhi’s bullock cart. Telangana was forgotten. Sridhar Reddy had a desultory political career, whose high watermark was the presidentship of the AP Sports Council. And it lay there till the present chief minister, K. Chandrashekhar Rao, a former Telugu Desam- nominated deputy speaker of the Andhra Assembly, suddenly found for himself a cause to hitch his wagon to.
The foundation to this was laid on December 15, 1952 when Potti Sriramulu, who was agitating for a Telugu state, died after a 56-day hunger-strike. His death sparked public rioting and three days later Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared the intent by the newly independent nation to form an Andhra state comprising of the Telugu-speaking districts of the composite Madras state.
The next step was the consequence of the States Reorganisation Act of 1956, leading to the formation of states based on a common linguistic identity. This led to the formation of a composite Telugu-speaking state of the Telangana of the old Hyderabad state and the Andhra state. The integration of the two Telugu regions in 1956 was intended to be a trial marriage. The Andhra people of Madras state were the ones who wanted a Telugu state. It was originally a rallying call of the Communists that was deftly appropriated by ambitious Congressmen in Madras wanting a more active share of the pomp and prize of high offices, not possible in the composite Madras state. It took all the charm and authority of Jawaharlal Nehru to persuade the Telangana Congress leaders to accept a trial. Jawaharlal Nehru cajoled them to give it a try for five years. They don’t make leaders bigger and taller than Jawaharlal, and when he gave an assurance, it was taken.
The case for a separate Telangana was not then based on an economic argument. The story is of a deep cultural divide between two peoples united by language but divided by habits, values, history and culture. We know that language alone cannot be the basis of statehood. German is spoken in Austria as well, but Germany and Austria are different countries. Ukrainian and Russian are 90 per cent identical. The Ukraine in Russian means border territory. Yet they are now separate countries. Within India, the four BIMARU states (Bihar, MP, Rajasthan and UP) have dozens of dialects latticed together by Hindi. Yet they are separate states. Language, like religion, cannot be the sole basis of nationality.
The story of Pakistan tells us that you can never be united by religion alone. The story of Germany and Austria tells us that you can never be united by language alone. And the story of Spain and Portugal tells us that you cannot even be united by a confined geography.
India is a vast mosaic of peoples where colours, sounds, shapes and landscapes change after every few hours of road travel. To argue that all Telugu-speaking people are one is nonsensical. No state in India, even a small one like Nagaland, can claim a monochromatic oneness. In Nagaland, behind every successive ridgeline, there is another tribe speaking a different language and wearing a different tartan. Tangkhul and Angami, or Konyak and Ao, are as different as Telugu is from Tamil and Bengali from Odia. Andhra Pradesh was not an exception.
Two centuries ago, when the Nizam of Hyderabad ceded the Circars and the British presidency usurped the Rayalaseema region, the basis of separateness was established. Geography only accentuated it. The British invested in education and enriched the delta districts with canals and roads. Even without the tax revenues of the Circars, the Nizam was the richest man on earth. Even richer than the British sovereign he was a vassal to. It tells a lot about the kind of regime the Nizams ran. The hard soil and constant toil for so little, and the prolonged subservience to an Urdu-speaking elite, made the people of Telangana different and also disadvantaged compared to their other Telugu-speaking brothers. This fact was indisputable.
Large states in India are really large. If Uttar Pradesh were a country, it would be the sixth largest one in the world. Andhra Pradesh was bigger than the UK. Large states in a centralised dispensation are difficult to govern. They make the government distant from the people. They are inefficient and wasteful. And you can’t have uniform policies over large tracts with different agro-climatic and socio-cultural regions. Aristotle had once wisely said that “it is an injustice to treat equals as unequals, just as it is an injustice to treat unequals as equals”. Which was broadly the complaint of the Telangana people.
Telangana had backwardness written into its geography. It had backwardness written into its sociology. And it had backwardness hard-wired into its mentality. Even if the dubious arguments that more money has flowed into Telangana and Telangana has progressed more than the other two regions advanced by the Srikrishna Committee are accepted, it still does not erase the argument in favour of a smaller state.
I have dealt with the speciousness of the economic argument elsewhere. A smaller state does not threaten the more recent settlers, just as it didn’t the old settlers. Ask the Maharashtrians of Sultan Bazar, the Gujaratis of Jeera, the Tamilians of Walker Town, the Marwaris of Maharajganj, the Lodhs of Dhoolpet and even Andhras of Mushirabad. Telangana has been home to many others. It’s only that the sons of the soil had not fared as well as the others. The time had come to redress that situation, and it happened.