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Telangana Resumption

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Poster at a Telangana protest. The dam diverts water from Telangana to Andhra, leaving some farmers impoverished.

As I write, the city of Hyderabad has virtually shut down – but then, a city of 4 million can never really shut down, can it? The police have cordoned off the arterial roadways; they stand erect, decked in full riot gear, shields glistening in the sun before a tangle of razor-wire. Every 200 meters or so reveals a new checkpoint, a new cadre of stern-faced policeman prepared for – what? – for anything. The students of Osmania University have decided to march on the state assembly, for one last (though it won’t really be the last) cry of agitation for Telangana. The police have determined that they will not get that far. Hyderabad swarms with them; they have learned from past mistakes, and are now taking no chances. The previous agitations may have seemed a joke to most, a petty squabble between fresh-faced youngsters and India’s grimly determined gendarmerie. Only now does the seriousness of this affair sink in. Hyderabad resembles an occupied city, a militarized zone, whose citizens are doing their best, in spite of the inconvenience, to go about their daily business. The main roads blocked, their vehicles cram the side-streets, loosing a cacophony of horns, shouts, and irritated grunts.

But what of the students? From a terrace outside the university campus I got a birds-eye view of the coming agitation; a prelude, perhaps, to the free-for-all that is sure to ensue should the students somehow make it to the state assembly. (As of this writing, at 2:30 PM, the mob has been stopped approximatly four kilometers from their target.) Thousands of students stand in a tightly packed oblong circle, surrounded by hundreds of riot-clad policeman. The crowd roars, “Jai! Telangana!” and the police nervously fingered their batons, ready for the violence to break, perhaps even willing it, but sternly warned not to attack until the first stone had been thrown.

Suddenly – a break. As though by common consent, the stduents in the center of the mass begin pushing, and soon they force a hole in the police line. The police, still cautious, refrain from swinging their batons. One catches just the faintest wisp of bemusement in their eyes – the students, after all, have six kilometers and fifteen roadblocks to traverse before they reach their goal at the assembly. Let them march! But still, one officer cannot help but swing a half-hearted whack at a passing student. The gap widens; the students pour through. The shouts become ebullient, joyful: “Johar! Johar!” One young fellow, only twenty by the looks of him, runs at the head of the mob, leaping with joy, pumping his fist into the air. Another group of students stays behind at the university gate, chanting slogans, waving flags, and glaring, with anger-widened eyes, at their khaki-clad oppressors.

The Telangana movement has entered into the third month of its current incarnation, and it shows no signs of slowing. What moves these students to risk their lives, their well-being? By what do they endure the blows of police batons, the cracked skulls, the shattered ribs? To find out, I visited the Osmania University campus during a lull in the activity, one week ago. In interviews with students and professors, I caught, perhaps, a glimpse of the disposession, the frustration that drives this movement – but I gained as well a healthy dose of cynicism.

Before I begin I should admit that my initial writings on this topic (here, here and here) were premature and largely uninformed. I regarded this business then as so much wasted time, a pointless agitation for a rather meaningless goal – would Telangana, after all, relieve India’s systemic corruption? Would it ease Hyderabad’s pollution-withered lungs? I had a sense, at the time, that Telangana had suffered some historical injustice, but I had no idea how systematic it was, how deeply it affected the farmers and villagers of this area, what a scarified psychic wound it left. As with all political movements, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, how much of it is a spontaneous effusion of decades of frustration, and how much planned by clever, power-seeking politicians. My interviews with the Osmania students did little to relieve this ambiguity.

The grievances, at least, are real enough – Telangana has been deprived of water, land, and cultural identity. The statistics are revealing, and Telangana protesters never turn down an opportunity to quote them – 80% of state jobs go to Andhra, even though the state capital is in Telangana; only 13% of the state’s water supplies get to the Telangana region. Telangana finds itself bereft of universities, capital investment, development projects, or any kind of government support.  They’ve been lied to from the start – the 1956 agreement that bound Andhra and Telangana together was a sham and was violated almost immediately after it was signed.

The knowledge of this deprivation has moved countless students to protest – but it seems there must be something more to it.

My interviews at Osmania were partially instructive. I wanted to know why these students felt so strongly about the Telangana issue – beyond the various statistics that illustrate Telangana’s subjugation. What did Telangana mean to them? Why were they willing to risk being arrested and beaten? Why were students dousing themselves with kerosene and lighting a match?

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Aravind Seti, 22, is a Master’s student in Biotechnology. He has a shy, innocent smile, and a soft-spoken manner about him. He was sitting outside the Osmania Arts College, the main building of the agitations, under a tent where a few students desultorily milled about and a cheap 1960s-era speaker blasted grainy Telangana protest music. I approached him, notebook in hand, and began to ask of his motivations.

“Well…” he started. He seemed to have difficutly putting his thoughts into words. “The political leaders here are all very corrupt. We aren’t represented in the assembly. I’m doing this for the sake of my friends and colleagues. We’ll get more jobs, you see, many more opportunities if Telangana comes.”

I persisted, “But why do you, specifically, feel strongly about this? Is it a sense of historical injustice, or have you personally seen Andhra oppression? What lead you to protest?”

“I am excited to be part of such a historic movement,” he explained, “We have suffered for so long – not me, personally, but my countrymen, we in Telangana. So much history behind us gets stamped under the Andhra heel. Who will speak for us?”

He opened his mouth to continue, but before he could speak, a short professor with a furrowed brow walked quickly towards us. His eyes were red.

“Yes, who are you?” he asked.

“I’m a journalist – I’m trying to get a sense of the public mood here. You know, why the students feel so strongly about this, etc.”

He was brusque. “Address your questions to me. I can speak for the students.”

“And who might you be?” I asked.

“I’m his teacher.”

“Which class do you teach?”

“I teach Arts at a different university.”

“But he just told me he’s a biochemistry student. How can you be…”

“Well, I’ve taken on the role of a mentor for these students. I’m a teacher for all the students of this movement now.”

I attempted to interview Aravind, but his ‘professor’ continued to interject with the standard Telangana grievances: the water, the jobs, the land-grab on the part of Andhra, etc. He was vigorous, angry, even, and hardly allowed Aravind to speak. This was not what I had come there for. The grievances I knew; the students, I didn’t.

Thinking I could not understand Telegu, the professor hurriedly whispered to Aravind: “When he asks you questions, you must give perfect answers. You are speaking for the movement.  Do not give wrong answers!”

I felt I wouldn’t get much farther with Aravind, so I asked him one final question: “How long have you felt this way? How long have you been conscious of the Telangana plight?”

He blushed. The professor winced. “To tell you the truth,” said Aravind, “I had no idea about any of this until last November, when K.C.R [the leader’s movement] gave his speech at the university and began his hunger strike. I listened to his speech and wanted to be part of a movement.”

The professor began to give a long speech regarding the historical injustice of Telangana’s union with Andhra – the broken promises, the theft of water, the deprivation of employment. I cut him off and asked: “What do you think of the recent suicides? There have been almost 100 so far, all for Telangana. Do you think that by glorifying the students who choose to kill themselves, the movement condones it?”

He turned scarlet. “We absolutely do not condone these suicides!” he said vigorously, “But how can we stop them? They are an expression of the students’ rage.”

I persisted. “But Aravind just said he didn’t even know about this movement until a couple months ago. How could they have gotten so enraged so quickly?”

The professor stammered. “Well… emotions run hot…” He did not want to comment further.

I was curious as to how long the professor had been active in the movement. For someone who evidently felt so strongly about the issue, for someone who had taken a leadership position in these student agitations, he surely must have agitated before. He was in his late thirties.

“How long have you been in the movement?” I asked.

The professor scowled, then frowned, as though he knew the question was coming, and dreaded it.

“…. I’ve only been participating since November 28th, the date of K.C.R’s speech. ” And then, by way of justification: “One has to take care of their own…” Meaning his family.

————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Pandu Rangam is 22 years old, and he’s studying for a B. Tech in computer science. His parents are farmers in Nizamabad, in the heart of Telangana. When I spoke with him he betrayed a profound cynicism toward the whole student movement, and questioned the motives of its leaders.

“These students are being totally manipulated by K.C.R and the rest of the leadership,” he said, “The tragedy is that while the politicians aren’t really sincere about this, the students are. Look at how many have killed themselves over this! I’m amazed K.C.R has no shame. 99% of the students you talk to had no idea about Telangana this – Andhra that, until K.C.R came and gave his speech here. They’re 2-month-old patriots.”

“What do you think will happen if Telangana comes into existence?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing much will change,” he replied, almost cheerfully, “The politicians will rule the state much as it has been ruled – only now we’ll be plundered by our own people, instead of those living 200 km away.”

“These students are trying so hard,” he continued, “They endure the police charges, take their blows, but in the end they’ll be disenfranchised as they always have – you know, we’ll only see a real change if the students get leadership positions in the new Telangana. They’re the only ones who aren’t corrupt. How can they be – they haven’t had time to get the taste of money. ”

Arjun, 21, another computer science student, overheard our conversation and joined in.

“But you have to admit, we’ve been totally mistreated by the Andhra government. Remember – 85% of jobs to go Andhra! They buy all our real estate and force our farmers into slavery!” he chided Pandu, “All politicians are corrupt – we know that. But maybe things will be a little better under our own leaders.”

Pandu laughed, “You want to risk your life for a ‘maybe’?”

Arjun continued, “Before we get Telangana we need a full inquiry into government corruption. We must root out corruption in our state if anything is to change.”

Pandu: “That’s why we let the students run the state!”

Arjun: “That’s a stupid idea. What do we know? We 22-and-23 year olds? You yourself said how easily the students were led into risking their lives, into enduring police charges. Who is to say some corrupt politician won’t manipulate these student leaders if they gain power in the state?”

Pandu had no answer.

I asked, “Would it be worth all this be worth it if Telangana happened, but its leaders turned out to be just as corrupt as the Andhra leaders?”

Pandu said no. Arjun said yes.

Pandu: “What is the use if none of our problems are solved?”

Arjun: “Even if we get corrupt leaders, at least they will be our corrupt leaders.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Walking about the campus, I stopped a student on the street for a spot interview. His name was Vikas, and he had taken part in the agitations since November 28th – K.C.R’s speech. He has attended meetings, but did not participate in the riots.

“I wanted to be a part of something historic,” he said, “I didn’t know very much about this until K.C.R. gave his speech. I listened to it and became very inspired. Without Telangana we won’t get jobs. We won’t get land, or water.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Thimmapa is 20, and one of the few students I spoke with who rioted with the students last December. He endured the police batons, and showed me a scar on his forehead to prove it. He bears it with pride.

“My dad is dead, and my mom is a coolie,” he said, by way of introduction, “I’ve been wanting Telangana ever since I was 14 years old. I read about it in books, but more than that, I watched society. People from Andhra are managers. People from Telangana are night watchmen outside the buildings.”

I ask you, how is this fair? Are we not people? I tell you, we are just as smart as anyone from Andhra. They think we’re second-class, but I say they are the second-class!”

“What about K.C.R.?” I asked.

“He is a good orator,” Thimmapa replied. “We will see what kind of leader he is. I trust him.”

“With Telangana we’ll have jobs, land,” Thimmapa continued, “We’ll tear down these evil dams that divert our water. Our water! And we won’t give a drop more to Andhra. Have they not drank enough?”

His roommate interjected: “We feel stepped on. They destroy our culture, say it’s no good. Well, I think they’re culture is no good. But who listens to me? If I were from Andhra, I would have a nice job waiting for me when I get out of university; I would have big land with a river flowing through it.”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Anurag is a 19-year-old law student and speaks in flawless English. He, too, is skeptical of the movement, and says he is “neither for nor against Telangana”, instead describing himself merely as “pro-development”.

“I see no clear agenda from the pro-Telangana people”, he remarked, “The students who are involved in this so-called agitation to me  seem to be simply moving with the flock. What will happen once they achieve Telangana? No one knows. Well, I guess K.C.R will become Chief Minister – everyone knows that. But then what? Do they think they’ll suddenly get land and water and jobs overnight? I think a lot of students are in for a big disappointment, one way or another.”

“What do you see as the pros and cons of a separate Telangana state?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see – definitely a con will be the lack of negotiation power with the Central Government – consolidated with Andhra we speak with a much bigger voice. All alone, I’m not sure how many concessions we’ll be able to wrest from them. Another con would be the interruption of studies. If these agitations continue, the students will have lost one full year of school. Don’t they care about that?

On the pro side – a new state will open new opportunities for jobs. A new state means a new assembly, a new legislature. These positions will obviously be filled by Telangana students. But at the same time, the number of positions we’re talking about is slight – maybe 300 to 400 new jobs at the max. It’s clear the problem is bigger than this – it has to do with overpopulation – but of course no one wants to talk about that. Let’s see… well, I guess it’ll do wonders for our self-respect. I mean that’s what everyone talks about, right? But I can’t help but think that if we can’t respect ourselves without our own state, how will be be able to respect ourselves with one? During the independence movement that was also a major argument; people said India can never respect itself while it’s under the British crown. Do we really respect ourselves so much now?”

————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

I came away from the university with something of a clearer picture of this movement. The grievances, at least, are no doubt legitimate, but I found it extremely curious that most of the students with whom I spoke had very little knowledge of them before K.C.R gave his fateful speech. However no one can doubt the genuineness of the student’s emotions – they feel the injustice, and are willing to go to some length to demonstrate it. Partly for a desire to belong to a larger movement, certainly, but also of a feeling of historical injustice, and the desire to redress it. The student suicides are especially perplexing, and I cannot wrap my mind around why someone would kill themselves over this.

One last note on the police brutality this movement has seen: at several protests over the past few months the police have charged, seemingly without warning, striking anyone at hand, including women and reporters. I know not under whose orders such actions were undertaken, but they remain counterproductive in the extreme, and have likely done more than their part in recruiting new protesters. It is not a pleasant sight to see young women clutching their heads as blood seeps between their fingers – and those who do see it are likely to become far more enraged over that, rather than abstract historical grievances.

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