Telangana Reflections: Three Months Later
Three months after the eruption of Telangana’s latest independence movement, I want to take a few minutes to examine the issue at large. This dispute has caused so much fury and hatred on both “sides” that it’s easy to forget the genuine historical issues that lie at its root. Every two weeks or so, the students at Osmania University begin new demonstrations. The suicides have not ceased – in fact, they’ve accelerated. A bright young chemical engineering student, age 20, hanged himself a few days ago, leaving a note that specifically identified the delay over Telangana’s statehood as the reason for his death. He joins at least one hundred who have successfully killed themselves for this issue, and several hundred who have tried.
The many supporters of Telangana’s statehood with whom I’ve spoken invariably bring up the historical injustices their region has suffered. These date back to the pre-independence era, when the Nizam of Hyderabad, an “independent prince”, ruled Telangana as a fiefdom within the British Empire. The areas now comprising Andhra were under direct British rule, and as a result, those from Andhra gained exposure to the English language and institutions. This, of course, put them at a natural advantage after Independence, when India adopted an English administrative language and a government modeled after Britain’s.
India’s independence was a bloody, sorrow-filled affair that brought with it a raft of state-related problems, in many ways similar to Telangana’s present dispute. In 1956, the States Reorganization Act divided India along “linguistic” lines, wherein they tried to give every major language group its own state. Ironically, Andhra Pradesh was itself born of such a struggle, as the Reorganization Act largely sprang from agitations for a Telegu-speaking state, what later became Andhra Pradesh.
Any Telegu-speaking state would have to include Telangana, and so it joined the new Andhra Pradesh by what is now known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement”, which stipulated that Telangana be given a certain percentage of state spending with respect to population along with several other demands. Most notably, Telangana demanded – and got- an escape clause which would allow it to secede from Andhra Pradesh at any point it should wish. Later, Andhra tried to forget this aspect, but it forms the central part of Telangana’s legal argument for secession.
The Andhra Pradesh government violated the agreement before the ink dried. In not one year after the signing did Telangana receive any of the promised investment. The region was already “underdeveloped” with comparison to the Andhra region due to its separation from the British Empire and the pervasive corruption of its previous ruler, the Nizam. After centuries of feudal serfdom under the Nizam, Telangana found it had merely traded one oppressor for another.
The statistics bear this out. Telangana has received only 13% of irrigation projects in the state, and it faces discrimination in employment, education, health services, and many other areas. The average citizen of Telangana is noticeably worse off when compared an average citizen of Andhra.
In 1969, Telangana exploded into secession demonstrations that the Andhra police brutally suppressed, killing 300. And then began a long and humiliating list of “programmes” – the “Six-point plan”, the “Eight-Point programme”, etc – each valid only on paper. They essentially put the issue on permanent back-burner, allowing Telangana’s frustrations to slowly simmer for forty years, until now, when they again boiled over.
Irrigation is a major thorn. Telangana lies naturally on a plateau, and rivers tend to flow away from it. To add to that, the Andhra government built two dams that diverted away what little water reached Telangana. As a result, Telangana farmers find themselves at the mercy of the rains. Two or three years of uncertain rainfall, as they’ve just experienced, can utterly ruin them. The monsoons were three months late last year, and no one in India can afford the luxury of climate change denial. Each summer is hotter than the one before it. Telangana, being rain-fed, stands to lose the most. In many ways, this issue can be seen through a climate perspective.
Detractors of Telangana’s statehood generally employ “practical” arguments as to why it would be unwise to grant Telangana independence. Often, they refer, with no intended irony, to Telangana’s historical deprivation as a reason it “needs” Andhra to help it ‘develop’. I have even heard one vehement opponent claim that “they [people from Telangana] are just lazy – they don’t want to work and expect jobs to come to them.” Some level of overt discrimination is thus apparent, at least among certain circles – wealthy ones, I should imagine.
Others wonder whether Telangana will still rely on the fertile Andhra plains after it becomes independent, given the terrifying food inflation rate in India – a sore point to raise since a major aspect of this crisis is agrarian.
One also hears the problem of Hyderabad as a good reason this dispute ought to be evaded, or even ignored. Hyderabad is the capital of the consolidated Andhra Pradesh state, and it happens to be right in the center of Telangana. One reason why Andhra wanted Telangana so badly, many contend, is Hyderabad’s attraction as a capital. The Andhra region has no suitable city. And whether by deliberate planning or unconscious will, Andhra’s significant investment in Hyderabad (“colonization”, some would call it) became an unspoken claim to the land.
Hyderabad now stands as perhaps the fourth most-developed city in India, and it has attracted a surge of foreign investment. The city, hazy and overcrowded as it is, now sports dozens of shopping malls, every major fast-food chain, a “world-class” international airport, a burgeoning IT sector, four 5-star hotels, and a jet-set of American and European businessmen, promising to “do business”.
At various press conferences I’ve attended in my capacity as a newspaper intern I’ve heard Indian scientists, businessmen, and politicians, all talking about how Hyderabad knows no recession, how it will become a “world city” by 2015. Over the last two months, these pronouncements have had a tinge of worry to them. Everyone “knows” – or thinks they know – that if Hyderabad goes to Telangana, investment will be ‘scared off’.
One hears often how we must protect “Brand Hyderabad” at all costs. At press conferences and business luncheons, the Caucasian benefactors from America or Europe, those who write the checks, can be seen clucking their tongues in dismay. These protests are “bad for business”.
“Pragmatism” aside, however ,I think it should be clear that Telangana has suffered severe discrimination, and that they deserve some sort of redress for the historical disadvantage at which they find themselves. Further, they’ve been lied to, systemically, for more than forty years. Their anger is legitimate, and it cannot be deferred any longer. However, whether actual statehood is the solution to Telangana’s problems remains to be seen.
I admit my original reaction to these demonstrations was ignorant and uninformed. I saw this movement then as so much emotional nonsense – that even if Telangana had legitimate grievances (which, even at the time, I was beginning to suspect that they did) these pointless demonstrations distracted the political establishment from what should be the real focus of their endeavors: controlling India’s population, reducing the toxic brown cloud lingering above the subcontinent, ensuring equitable water and food distribution, and solving the land problem. I did not realize then that Telangana was agitating precisely for these things, albeit, only for themselves.