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Telangana Reflections: Three Months Later

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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.

Written by pavanvan

March 15, 2010 at 3:08 pm

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?

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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.”

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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.

India: A View From the Top

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A very wealthy friend of mine in India sat to discuss the various maladies that plague this dark and beguiling continent:

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. What do you make of all this Telangana business? People are really getting agitated about it. On the way here I saw an open-top truck full of activists – there was one policeman and and about twenty people shouting “Jai! Telangana!” at the top of their lungs. I guess they were being taken in or whatever, but the truck stopped at a light and they all climbed over the sides and started laying down in the road! They were shouting “Jai! Telangana! and waving flags the entire time. One SUV screeched to a halt just before hitting one of them.”

– “It’s a problem. But what you have to realize is that this has been boiling up for more than 60 years. I definitely think the central government botched this issue – in fact I can’t see how they could have done a worse job of it. All these contradictory pronouncements, the half-decisions and endless recanting – it’s making these agitations much worse. It’s clear nobody knows what they’re doing. But with that said, you really have to go back in history to understand why these people feel so strongly about this.

Why do you think Andhra Pradesh is even a a state to begin with? Nehru – the first prime minister – he wanted “linguistic” states; every language its own state. This was one of those rare instances where the wants of the population and the politician’s schemes line up perfectly. Before 1956 India was organized much as it had been under the British. But people were angry – a lot of language groups were split up – and the borders themselves were a colonial legacy. At the same time, the politicians saw the value of the idea – Hindi is by far the most prevalent language in India. If you could get all the Hindi-speakers under one political structure, the vote bank would basically decide elections. And so it has, since then. The north is mostly Hindi-speaking; you have Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar – these are some of the largest states. With the way things are organized, the North can overrule the South. I believe you had a similar situation in America.

And you have to ask: were the borders drawn correctly? Did they do a good job? It is very ironic that Andhra Pradesh – the state from which Telangana wishes to secede – was itself the product of a bitter secession movement. Before 1956, this whole area belonged to what was then a Tamil-speaking state. Even now many Telegu villages exist in Tamil Nadu, and all over India there are villages in a similar situation. Remember, this country has 18 distinct “languages” and hundreds upon hundreds of dialects.

So when Andhra Pradesh got its independence from the Madras state, it took the Telangana region, which used to be the Hyderabad state, along with it. They spoke the same language, after all! But no one really asked Telangana if it wanted to come. Later its only rivers were dammed up to provide electricity to the coastal region, diverting them from the Telangana farmlands. That’s a major reason why they’re upset now.

We need to ask ourselves: ‘How do we want our country to be organized?’ ‘Was it even a good idea to have linguistic states’? In my opinion it was not such a great idea – and even if it was, the implementation has been atrocious. Ask me, I think the administrative divisions should be done by population or resources. I think that would make the most sense.”

“It’s interesting that you bring up Nehru. I’ve really noticed a shift in people’s attitudes regarding their erstwhile Prime Minister. Time used to be when his name was almost synonymous with god. What happened?

– “Nehru was a man whose time had come and gone, but nobody knew it. He didn’t know it – and the country certainly didn’t either. They kept voting him back in, more from habit than anything else by the end. Only now are we beginning to realize that many of the problems we just can’t seem to solve sprang up under his rule.

Who else can we blame for Partition? Jinnah, maybe – well, probably. But who gave Jinnah his voice? Who listened to him? Nehru. He was the leader of the largest – indeed, the only – mass political party India had ever known. It was certainly within his power to block Partition. But he went along with it. Why? Well, that’s a mystery – maybe he just wanted to get independence over with and – who knows? – maybe he actually thought the Muslims had a point. But I think he just didn’t care what happened to those desert-and-swamp areas; just so long as he could have his India. You know the day after Independence, he moved right into the former Viceroy’s mansion. That’s when you knew.

Think of Kashmir – Nehru’s home state. Do you think that had something to do with it being incorporated into India? They originally offered a plebiscite, but then they backed down when it looked like the Kashmiris were going to vote to become part of Pakistan. So he let the Hindu king of Kashmir decide. Hence the dispute. But what was done cannot be undone, and now Kashmir finds itself surrounded on three sides by countries who want a piece of it – Pakistan, India and China.

And think of the colossal corruption that went on under his watch! Twenty years after Nehru died, his grandson, Rajiv, calculated that out of every 100 Rupees the Indian government spends, only 15 gets to its intended target. 85% is stolen by bureaucrats! Under whom did this system start? For that matter, who consolidated the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty? Why is India being ruled by an Italian whose sole virtue is that she happened to marry Nehru’s grandson?

He was a vain man, you see. He thought the country would be lost without him; that only he knew how to rule India. So he surrounded himself with people who believed just that. And pretty soon nobody questioned it. And he kept running – and kept winning! After all, he’d convinced the whole country it was unsafe in any other hands. Your George Washington – what did he do in a similar situation? He quit after two terms. Nehru couldn’t do that – or he wouldn’t. Anyway, I can’t be sure anymore that we benefited all that much for his 18 years of rule.”

“But it’s just as you said, isn’t it? There was no one else. Nehru had to run – you know? To what extent is he responsible that no one else came forward? And at any rate, you have to admit Nehru was popular. People adored him, worshiped him even. Surely that played a role as well.”

– “It’s a vicious circle. The people here are extremely susceptible to the cult of personality. You’re surely seen the political posters last election. There’s a reason they all show only faces. Most people, that’s all they recognize. Don’t bother asking about policy. The leader is leader. It’s our duty to vote for him, and that’s that. The people blend their identities in with the leader – they believe in him, you see, because they have little else to believe in.

“Do you think this might relate to the Telangana issue? One thing I remember hearing from the protesters I spoke with was the ‘self-respect’ angle. A lot of people saw this as a battle for their self-respect. I think that’s a big appeal of this K.C. Rao, who’s apparently leading this mob – they see him as a beacon of Telangana self-respect. And I guess I notice that not only Telangana lacks self-respect, but at times Indians do as well. I’ve often heard people describing their own country as a “backwater” and their fellow citizens “second-rate people”.

– “Well to get those sentiments in context you really have to remember what India went through over the last millenium – what it’s still going through. Let’s see, we had 600 years of Muslim rule and… well, let’s say 200 years of British Empire. That’s 800 years of invasion – 800 years of foreign rule. Of slavery, really. I mean, I know people get touchy about that word but “Colonial rule” is nothing but a dressed-up euphemism. For 800 years India was made to feel like dirt, worthy only of scorn. The Muslim invasion badly wounded us, and the British nearly finished off whatever dignity we may still have retained. And it goes deeper than just the mentality – it gets into the genes. 800 years – that’s almost 30 generations of slaves. Slave genes – that’s what developed. That’s why you see such apathy among the public, such slavish devotion to the thieving politicians and thieving West.

“But it goes farther back than that, doesn’t it? What do you think of the caste system? Wasn’t that essentially inward colonialism – inward slavery? I read somewhere that something like 60% of the population were so-called “untouchables”, forbidden to interact with “caste Hindus” and relegated a life of hardship, labor and disappointment.”

– “Oh yes, the caste system is a terrible blight upon our civilization, and it still goes on today. How dare we preach peace to the world when our own house is in such frightening disarray? The Brahmins were slave-masters, yes – and the whole country bowed down to them. And you have to realize the rigidity of the system they devised. Where do you think the idea of karma came about? You hippies in the West, I hear you love talking about karma. Do you know what it means? Karma was a justification for Brahimincal tyranny – a justification for slavery. If you can make people believe that they deserve their station, that it’s no use trying for anything better, that their suffering is due to misdeeds in some imaginary previous life – well, then, you’ve got them exactly where you want them. That’s why for centuries – millennia! – there was no reform movement in Hinduism. Everyone stuck to their place, and in fact, they were proud to do so! This is where the concept of Dharma comes in – the concept of one’s “duty”. They convinced the latrine-cleaners and street sweepers that it was their duty to endure the abuse of the higher castes! You couldn’t possibly imagine a more insidious or effective ideology for controlling slaves.

“But there were reform movements, weren’t there? What about Buddhism?”

– “Buddhism, right – you know what happened to Buddhists in India, don’t you? The Brahmins kicked them all out! They were getting too uppity, and challenging Brahmincal authority. You see all the lower-castes – those 60% of Indians who were the dirt of society – they all began converting to Buddhism en masse. They began to want equality, some fairness in who does what jobs. Obviously you couldn’t have this, so the Brahmins got together and kicked them out. A thousand years later you saw the same thing happen with the Muslim invasion – all the trodden-upon members of society began to convert to Islam. At least as Muslims they’d be equal in theory – as Hindus they were nothing. Likewise when the British showed up with their Christianity. So Hinduism got some big chunks taken out of it – but the system of control was so ingrained that most people stayed. In fact, we didn’t really get a reformer until Swami Vivekananda, and that was in the 19th century, 3000 years after the Vedic Civilization! And then you had Gandhi, who I’m sure meant well, but… well look at the condition of many Indians today. 500,000,000 without regular food supplies. Clearly the reforms haven’t worked.”

“I want to know your views on Pakistan and China. The Pakistani intelligence service – the ISI – is widely blamed for the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. They’re taking aid from both America and China, and seem to have a single-minded desire for India’s destruction. Will India and Pakistan ever get along? What is the role of the US in all of this?”

– “I’ll say this about Pakistan – they’ve got some clever rulers. Clever! Sometimes I wonder why their people are so impoverished, since their leaders seem to be so smart. But I guess it isn’t cleverness per se – merely dull opportunism. They’re clever like a bully is clever. They understand power. I mean look at the game they’re playing right now; pitting America and China up against one another. And America is playing the same game – pitting Pakistan and India against each other.  All that money America gives to Pakistan – you think it actually goes toward “combating terrorism?” No! It goes to commit atrocities in India. The 26/11 attackers were paid for with American dollars.

But at the same time, America wants India as a bulwark against China. So they court us with civilian nuclear deals and “technical assistance”. To tell you the truth, I really resent that India needs America’s permission to build nuclear reactors – that we’re forced to play their one-sided game. But how can we refuse? They go to Pakistan otherwise. America certainly looks as if it’s warming up to India – but they want to keep a Pakistan strong, too. It’s in America’s interest to keep the Indo-Pakistani rivalry going; only then can America take advantage of both. You’ve heard the phrase ‘divide and rule’? So, no, I don’t see peace between India and Pakistan – at least not for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, China wants a strong Pakistan to keep India weak, which makes perfect sense. China sees India as a threat – not a traditional threat, mind you, but like this nuisance to the east that can only slow their growth. Recently we had a diplomatic situation with China wherein they wanted to dam up a shared river – cutting off flow to India. We really had no choice but to let them do it. And it’s only a matter of time before all the rivers will be dammed. The next wars will be over water. Remember that.

We in India don’t have the political will to meet these threats – in fact, we’d just as soon not hear of them. We’re too wrapped in our own cocoons – too beholden to the grip of tradition to notice or care.”

“That’s a little unfair, isn’t it? I mean, you have to admit that ‘development’ (such as it is) is occuring in India. Millions of people are getting their lives lifted out of poverty. Literacy rates are up, unemployment is down, and people really seem to be breaking out of this cycle of tradition. Wouldn’t you say?”

– Don’t make me laugh! Whatever “development” you see is solely due to the West – due to a desire to emulate the West. What kind of indigenous “development” have you seen in your time here? You think we’re “developed” because rich people can eat Pizza Hut now? You think Microsoft and Wal-Mart constitute social change? We’re exactly in the same position we were in under the British, only now we pledge allegiance to America instead. But the the hundreds of millions of Indian peasants, who still find themselves ground under the heel of starvation and want, this decade of “prosperity” has meant nothing to them. And always remember that these gains of the Indian middle class cannot last. We dithered for too long – we got into the game too late. Most of the oil has already been burned, most of the coal already extracted. We’re playing this ridicilous game of “catch-up to the West”, but the joke is on us. India will never be a first-rate global power. Maybe if we ask nicely China and America will let us into the club. But we’ll always be second-rate. We’ve got too much baggage – too much dead weight.

Sometimes I think we’d be better off as a one-party state, like China or your America. Here nothing ever gets done. We debate and debate, compromise and vote, and in the end we end up with half-decisions, or more usually, no decision at all. This Telangana issue is just one example. I think we have too much democracy. We need someone to tell us what to do – that much is painfully clear. First it was the British, and now America – they say jump, we say ‘how high?’; they say ‘develop’, we say ‘right away, sahib.’

“That’s pretty bleak. Anything else you’d like to add?”

– “We’ve been independent for 60 years. It’s astonishing that we haven’t even begun to solve any of our problems – in fact, they’ve gotten far worse under our watch. Overpopulation, starvation, bonded labor, inequality – these were all crimes we laid at the feet of the British. Who are we to blame now?”

India: Progress and Development

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Hyderabad is perpetually ensconced in a dim, grey haze. It penetrates every crevasse of every home, fills every lung, and obscures all vision beyond 150 meters or so. It flows, milky-white, from the nozzle of every vehicle (more than a million in Hyderabad alone), and stands as a testament both to India’s vaunted “development” and to the price she pays to attain it. Sitting atop a 5-story terrace one can view in three-hundred sixty degrees the dull miasma hanging low over the city, refracting the sunlight into a cloudy yellow glow.

And still they churn, the endless vehicles and their poisonous effluent. I am told that Hyderabad adds several hundred every day – and India as a whole, tens of  thousands. But it is hard to view such statistics with anything more than curious detachment. From day to day the crowds and pollution do not grow noticeably worse, and one can only meet the prospect of several million new cars by the end of the year with a dreary fatalism.

“What, are we not allowed to drive? Do we not deserve cars?” The civil servant, already receiving his share of bribes, asked with hilarious indignation. It was the same argument put forth by India and the other so-called “developing countries” at the Copenhagen conference. I have heard it often from apologists of India’s pollution, and I can hardly blame them. It is a terrible thing, to constantly be called a “developing country”, a member of the “third world”, to be looked down upon as a “backward nation”. These phrases have so entered the Indian psyche that I have even heard Indians referring to themselves, in all earnestness, as a “second-rate” people.

“Why should only America be allowed to burn carbon?”, he demanded,  “Do we not also deserve to develop? We are not your colony anymore that you may do with what you like! You cannot keep us in subjugation.”

It was an unanswerable argument. The only possible response – a vague gesture to the handkerchiefs one must clutch to their face in order to breathe – somehow failed to deliver the point. It would be difficult to explain that the sort of “development” India seeks is itself a Western construct, a bow to a new form of subjugation, that it implies a terrible poisoning of its “motherland”, oft extolled in song and poetry, but which in practice has been used as a giant latrine. It would be still more difficult to explain that India as a “developed” country is all but impossible, that we would require three Earths to give each of its 1,200 million inhabitants a car, and apartment, a flat-screen television and 3,000 calories per day.

But still one hears, from every podium: “By 2030 India will join the developed world.” Grandiose claims, but bless their hearts, they do give an impression of believing their own rhetoric. Do they know what it means, this “development”? Here one is obliged to start guessing – no one in a position to give a coherent answer seems capable of doing so. Taking aside the superlative definitions (“more steel production, more automobiles, more television, more money”), the unconscious consensus seems to be: To live as they do in the West. To have rebellious, well-fed children. To drive about in motorcars; and above all, to escape the crowds and corruption of the India they know.

“Once India is developed,” a wealthy banker informed me, “we will no longer have to look at that.” He pointed to a stinking open drainage ditch, running parallel to the road. It was rimmed with shanty tenements of cloth and aluminum – tents, really – where women did their washing in the fecal water and their numerous brood ran about naked as the day they were born. What did he think would happen to the ditch, to the people surrounding it? The ditch would be covered, of course, paved into a proper underground sewer. And the people? Well, perhaps they, too, would “develop” like this banker had; they would shed their rags, gain employment, move into a flat, buy a car (well, maybe a scooter), and join the middle class. Heaven is a world where everyone is rich. I’m sure many in India would be happy with a nutritious meal every day; but as India “develops”, their chances of getting even that begin to diminish.

Hyderabad is “developing” faster than most Indian cities and is now now considered an “IT capital of India. Shopping malls now tower where modest two-story houses sat only a decade ago. Several Indian IT companies chose to make their headquarters here (including, unfortunately, the Satyam ponzi-scheme) and the five-star hotels, of which Hyderabad now has four, sprang like mushrooms after the rain. The unceasing air traffic came to overwhelm Hyderabad’s ramshackle little two-runway airport, and, sniffing a “development opportunity”, it began expropriating land to build what would become India’s biggest airport. The facility at Samshabad opened in 2009 to great fanfare and adulation; encompassing more than 5,000 acres, it stood as the latest avatar of India’s “progress”. Hyderabadis speak with open pride of their beloved airport, of the “progress” it signifies, the “modernity” it heralds.

But what of that 5000-acre stretch’s previous inhabitants? I’ve asked quite a few people, but no one quite knows. Some say confidently, “that was government land” with the assumption that it had no inhabitants, while others say vaguely, “Oh, I’m sure they were somehow compensated.” None of the major newspapers focused on the villager’s situation, save for the Deccan Herald, which ran an article on June 24, 2000, when the airport was still being planned.

This article deserves to be read in full, but here is a taste of what went on (all emphasis mine):

About 1500 families of more than 10 villages near Hyderabad are spending sleepless nights. The people are faced with losing their homes, land and their livelihood as the government plans to acquire about 5000 acres to build the prestigious international airport in Shamshabad mandal near Hyderabad, abutting the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway. ”What is thisdevelopment? How is an airport useful to us?” asked Mrs Nagamani, mother of three sons, with tears in her eyes. Her village, Chinnagollapally, is one of the 10 that is going to be acquired. ”It is like mowing down a tree and making the birds homeless,” she said.

And another view:

Balaraj Goud of the same village said the only alternative open to them was to turn into rag-pickers, and then they would have to live with the ”sin” of displacing the present rag-pickers and depriving them of their livelihood. ”Perhaps the government should drop a bomb on us to spare us this trauma and then take our village for development,” Goud said bitterly.

At least the villagers received some remuneration, right?

The Shamshabad International Airport Land-losers Welfare Association points out that the government was dealing a double blow to the affected people. Not only is it displacing them, but offering a pittance of a compensation of Rs 45,000 per acre whereas the prevailing market rate is between Rs 160,000 and Rs 220,000 per acre.

On the bright side, at least the jet-setting businessmen, those gurus of development, will have a nice airport to land in, and a nearby 5-star hotel too!

Such examples abound. They are an inextricable by-product of “development” – at least, in the prevailing model – as inevitable as soot from a fire.

The dominant political slogan for the BJP a few years ago was “India Shining!”, to which Sonia Gandhi countered, “Who is India Shining for?” It was all meaningless political sloganeering, but Sonia’s response, I think, hit closer to the mark. At any rate, her party trounced the BJP in that election. But, having won, they turned around, as so often happens in politics, and began to advocate what they once denounced. India must shine after all – the world is watching. India was a land of problems, but those problems had a ready nostrum: Development!

Meanwhile, it is clear that as India “develops” its problems have tended to exacerbate, not ease. Social inequality is undoubtedly on the rise; where, before, the rich were merely well-to-do, now they command trillions of rupees, billions of dollars, while 500 million (almost twice the population of the US) still lives on less than 20 rupees per day. And more money inevitably means more corruption, something with which India has always wrestled, but which now threatens to swallow its fragile polity whole. The pollution in Hyderabad is quite characteristic of all Indian cities, and has begun to spread to the countryside. Trash now litters the entire 200 km stretch between Hyderabad and Warangal; the fields lay rotten and fallow, littered with so many plastic bags.

It is important to realize that these problems are borne of “development”, and they cannot be erased with yet more “development”. The pollution, the social stratification, the political corruption, the dilution of culture, the overpopulation – these are all the fruits of progress. Against them, what can one boast? That rich young men can finally buy Nike? That businessmen now wear suits instead of dhotis and travel first-class to New York? That 5 city-dwellers get a “European” flat for every 500 that sleep in the street?

“They laughed at him then, but Gandhi was a green thinker ahead of his time,” a wise coworker told me. And I wonder how many of India’s problems might have been avoided had they followed his prescriptions. In Gandhi’s numerous articles he consistently spoke out against mechanization, against the machine civilization, against cities, and even a centralized state. The India of his dreams was an exclusively rural country, “a village republic”, as he once called it, bereft of centralized politics beyond the level of a village council. I think Gandhi’s view of ‘development’ can be summed in his reaction to mechanized agriculture. “Show me a tractor,” he said, “that makes milk and fertilizer while it plows our fields.”

He was laughed at then, and even now evokes much derision among Indians. Predictably, the complaints against him are that he was “anti-development”, he “wanted to keep us poor”, he was a “selfish man”.  But taking aside his personal flaws (which, one must admit, were substantial), Gandhi stood as a nationalist, a defender against the corrupting influences of Britain (then the premier representative of “the west”), a pursuer of a vision of India which may have been flawed, but, in the sense which I think most would give the word, was at least “authentic”.

India today has transformed into nothing of the sort; it has shed whatever authenticity it one had and has settled, as if it already knew its place, back into an imperial role. With every Coca-cola sold, every pair of Nikes worn, India slips further  away from whatever independence it may have gained.

And looking now upon this wasted continent, half-developed, half-forgotten, one cannot help but feel despair. Unwittingly, India has allowed itself to become colonized once again!

Telangana: An Exchange

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Telangana supporters burn an effigy

“Total bandh today! Every shop has closed. They must give Telangana now.”

– Are you pro-Telangana?

“Yes, Yes, Jai! Telangana! We have waited too long; for forty years, fifty years, they are not listening. Now we are united – we must have Telangana”

– I’ve been hearing these sentiments quite often. Why do you think Telangana should be a separate state?

“Yaar – so many reasons! The Andhra people, they don’t give us the water, the irrigation – every river begins in Telangana, but they give us only 13% of water and 87% goes to Andhra and Rayalseema.”

– But then shouldn’t you be protesting for equal water distribution?

“Sir, sir, very quickly let me tell you. I will give you one example. In 1956 they had the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ when Andhra and Telangana became one state. They said whenever there is an Andhra Chief Minister, there will be a Telangana deputy. They did not do this. We have no educational facilities here. Andhra people think we are dumb, stupid. Andhra has only 9 districts and more than 90 universities! In Telangana there are 10 districts but only 30 universities! They give us only a  fraction of the power generation, even though we have the most population. Andhra does not allow us to develop. We get no investement, no money – what do they think?”

– If you asked for these things, don’t you think you would get them?

“No way, yaar! How long we are asking! The Andhra politicians will never listen to us – that is why we must get our own state.

– But you must admit they are listening at least somewhat to you now. Telangana leaders are participating in high-level meetings!

“Yes, but that is only because we made them!”

– “Well then, let me ask it like this: If the Andhra government were to build universities, dig irrigation, allow a Telangana chief minister – in short, if they addressed all of your grievances, would this movement dissolve? What do you think would end these strikes and riots?

“We will accept nothing but Telangana. We have been mistreated for too long. The only solution is Telangana.”

– Do you think that such an absolute stance might make negotiation difficult?

“No, yaar – here, please listen, let me tell you just one example. We need Telangana for our self-respect! The Telegu film industry is all Andhra. They use Telangana accent as a joke. They only make villains from Telangana.  They take our self-respect! When it was independence time, we Indians had to chase the British out to get back our self-respect. Just like that, we in Telangana must break from Andhra to regain our self-respect. It is like Gandhi said: ‘Do or Die'”

– I think he used it in a different context. Don’t you think the Telangana movement works to an opposing aim to Gandhi’s? He wanted to keep India together. Do you think maybe this movement increases the regionalism here; makes people of themselves more as a member of their region than India? I mean, if Telangana gets statehood, a lot of other regions will want their own state as well.

“I don’t think that would be bad. Let them split the states up! Andhra, Telangana, Rayalseema – then the UP states can all be broken up, and the Madhya Pradesh states as well. Why not? Smaller states means better development. You’re from America – your country has only 30 Crore people and you have 50 states. Here we have 130 Crore people! Why shouldn’t we get more states?”

– If that’s the case, isn’t this something that should be decided all at once? Like, they have a session of parliament or whatever and declare once and for all how many states there should be and who should get them? That way everyone gets independence at once, and it’s done officially. Don’t you think that by doing it piecemeal like this it creates more problems than it solves?

“No, No, sir, please, please listen, we have waited 40 years for Telangana. Let them have their meeting after Telangana is independent. This much at least they owe us.”

– Well, I would think that monopolizing the central government’s time like this doesn’t let them solve the real problems of India. If you lived in Bihar or Orissa, you would wish you lived in Telangana, even with its problems. You know what goes on in those states – it’s basically slavery.  And look at the pollution around you. Look at the overpopulation, the masses of poor. Wouldn’t you want these problems solved?

“Yes, and they will be! Once we are free of the Andhra government we will have much less poverty here, we will be able to rule ourselves.”

– But that doesn’t help the Oriya farmer.

“They are poor because they don’t have resources, they have nothing there. Why should Telangana also be poor when it has coal mines, copper, tin, and two massive rivers? India will always have these problems; poverty, corruption, bonded labor – but at least we can make them lesser in our Telangana!”

– Do you really think the problems will be fixed, even within Telangana? You said yourself that Indian politics will always be corrupt. And so long as Sonia Gandhi exercises absolute power over the Congress Party, there doesn’t seem a likelihood for reform. I mean, think about it: Maybe Telangana can keep Congress out for the first few election cycle,s but once a Congress leader gets in, it’ll be the same situation as it is now. Look at what all of the Members of Parliament are saying now: “We must wait for Sonia ma’am’s approval – we can take no decision without her.”

“This may be true, but we can do nothing about that. At least now we will have our own Telangana. If we can remove 10% corruption, then this will be worth it.”

– Even if it means increasing corruption elsewhere?

“Yes, even then. We will stop at nothing to achieve Telangana. We are willing to pay any price.”

Written by pavanvan

January 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Christmas in Telangana

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The Telangana issue defies any resolution and now drags into its sixth week of open agitation. Hyderabad is once again on strike until the New Year; the buses have halted, the stores closed, and the city’s 2.5 million workers are taking a week off. The pretext for this recent outburst lies in the Congress Party’s qualification of its promise two weeks ago for an independent Telangana.

The Telangana masses, drunk with emotion, burned and rioted their way to a favorable statement from Congress, the ruling party. And only now, three weeks later, did they realize that the Congress Party has no say in this matter, that this is a question only India’s Parliament can definitely decide. When they were told as much, the Telangana leaders became infuriated and began spouting epithets about “betrayal”, “lies,” and so forth. K. Chandrashekar Rao, the leader of the separatists, thundered in a speech yesterday that Telangana would “go nuclear” if its demands were not met, that all 100 Telangana Members of Parliament and Legislators would resign simultaneously, adding to India’s storied history of constitutional crises. He also vaguely threatened that the strikes would devolve into violence, but this will likely happen with or without his benediction.

How indicative of the essential dysfunction in Indian politics, that it took three weeks to realize Parliament’s role in this affair! Any declaration of state separation is, after all, completely illegal without parliamentary approval, yet until now this apparently had not occurred to anyone. Two weeks ago everyone took it as given that if Sonia Gandhi (India’s un-elected puppetmaster) decided to separate Telangana, then bang it would go. Only now do they realize that India is not, after all, an open dictatorship; that Parliament, degraded though it may be, still carries at least some significance.

So, once again, Hyderabad is treated to the chanting processions, the emotional speeches, and occasional outbursts of violence. Superficially, one can see this as a stark affirmation of the endless divisions plaguing India, of the tribal mentality ( if you’ll pardon the expression) that pervades India’s politics. Anthropologists call it “coalition thinking”, Orwell was content to call it “nationalism”, but the result is the same tendency to mix one’s identity in with a larger group, to consider an attack upon one an attack on the whole, to be willing to light one’s self on fire rather than sacrifice group “prestige”.

A friend tried to explain it to me in American terms: “You know how in America you have white people and black people? Just like that, here we have ‘Andhra’ and ‘Telangana’.” He exaggerated, but not very grossly. Relations have not yet degenerated into institutional slavery, but people who hail from the coast undeniably consider themselves different from interior-dwellers. They speak the same language, but the most minor differences in slang are inflated to demonstrate their separateness. And every group wants its intrests to be put first; every group holds the other with cool contempt.

The Andhra-Telangana dispute is just one symptom of this line of thinking, and it goes far beyond state rivalries. Every language group is its own coalition, every geographical area, every caste, every sub-caste. I recently read of a massacre perpetrated by the higher-order castes in a nearby village, something which happens too often in India. A dalit (“untouchable”) had dared to use the public water-pump, and for that the villagers got together and lynched 40 members of his caste; their houses burned, and the corpses of their children were thrown in a pile outside the village. The thought process behind such an atrocity defies reason. One person’s “mistake”  counted as a collective transgression – and punishment went not only to him, but to his caste at large.

“In this country, we only care about ourselves,” explained a man on the street, “If I have food to eat, if my children are well, what more should I bother? What’s mine is mine. You worry about yourself.” His English stuttered, but he expressed his meaning with sparkling clarity. “Once we stop thinking like this, our country will be number one. What progress can there be when nobody cares about her? [and here he pointed to the pictured woman above.]”

But apart from the selfishness and nationalism of Indian politics, the Telangana issue is but one battle in an ongoing political dispute in India over the ideal size of its states. This argument has precedent going back to independence, when large swaths of India were carved into administrative provinces; first corresponding to the British system, then along linguistic lines, and now, to judge by the history of the past month, any group who agitates with sufficient vigor can form a state. The dispute sees a fairly even split along party lines: the Congress Party, India’s most powerful, prefers large states, and the various other parties, with their alphabet soup of names (BJP, TDP, TRS, CPI, CPI (M), CPI (M-L), etc.) favor smaller districts. Each claims their plan will allow for “efficiency”, “rural development”, “better use of resources”, and so forth – but no one seems to know which is actually better.

Of course, it would not be very difficult to conduct a survey, taking all relevent variables into account, and arrive at a definitive answer as to the ideal size of administrative districts. But it is a powerful feature of Indian politics that such a survey would never happen, that the various coalitions will sit content in their self-assured outrage. An issue which could, conceivably, be decided once and for all, finds itself artificially prolonged.

I do not know whether Telangana will succeed in its ambitions, much less do I care. I do know that India’s problems – its fearful poverty, its grossly unequal distribution, its lung-withering pollution, its systemic corruption – are much larger than this petty regional dispute. Still more do I know that the students and citizens now engaging in battle with the police could not be compelled to march in favor of clean air or an end to India’s stratified society. Some of this spectacle’s more cynical observers acknowledge that even if they get Telangana, nothing substantial will change; they will only have exchanged one corrupt set of rulers for another.

But to secure that exchange, the public burns its buses, and crack goes the police baton on the protesters’ heads. Taking in the emotional chants and the endless marches under the beating sun, one cannot help but think: How different it would be, were they to march against hunger, against farmer suicides, against the blue haze that permeates every major city! With what a voice could they rise against the staggering corruption, the millionaire legislators, the all-powerful police constables! The extent to which one becomes sensitized to such circumstances never ceases to amaze. Dostoevsky was right: Man can get used to anything.

After coughing abundantly on the blue smoke of the auto-rickshaws perpetually swarming through Hyderabad, I turned to a friend in disgust. And he shrugged! “What can one do? That’s the way things are” – it was the same response I receive when discussing corruption in Indian politics, how more than 40 convicted criminals contested last month’s municipal electons. “Politicians are corrupt – what can you do?” I have not spoken with one Indian who denies that their country’s terrifying overpopulation. Yet they take it as a matter of course that one must marry and have children. “Cheh, you must have children! Two or three at least! Otherwise how will you live?”

A peculiar strain of escapism pervades this Telangana movement. The Indian youth desires nothing more than to escape the corruption, the poverty, the mind-boggling overpopulation, the roads choked with filth, and make a nice life for themselves in America. But if they can’t? Well, then at least they have their regional pride – at least they can agitate for Telangana! It is a proxy issue, a veiled symptom of a far deeper illness. That the masses of India remain petulant, divided, in the face of it all might suggest, as V.S Naipaul once suggested, a “defect of vision”, which no measure of “development” has yet corrected.

Looking forward to India’s future, I am pessimistic. An auto-rickshaw driver gave me a toothless grin as he pulled out seven soiled, crumpled black-and-white photographs. His seven children.

Written by pavanvan

December 24, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Telengana Epilogue

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Round one of the Telangana dispute has finished, but the struggle is far from over. Citizens of Andhra, the state from which Telengana just won secession, are in a furor, and nightly demonstrations scar their major cities. Angered citizens have already destroyed 30 buses, and incredibly, 79 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have threatened to resign. Having promised a state to Telangana, the central government now must deliver one, yet it must also answer to its Andhra constituency. No consensus seems possible.

The government has promised that the transfer “will not be in haste”, and clearly the thing it most desires now is time. Meanwhile, cities in Andhra have completely shut down, and there is already talk of a hunger strike to protest a Telangana state. Further complicating the issue is Rayalseema, a neighboring area, who now says  it also wants its own state. The situation is quickly devolving into absurdity.

Hyderabad is an problem for which no one knows the solution. Previously the capital of the consolidated Andhra state, it has been the site of massive capital and human investment. The city has four 5-star hotels, a brand-new airport (which happens to be the largest in India), a massive convention center to European standards and a diminished, though still booming, IT industry. Unfortunately, the city lies square in the middle of Telangana, and separatists have already begun chanting the slogan “Not Without Hyderabad!”. Some vague discussion can be heard of turning Hyderabad into a “Union Territory”, effectively a double capital, but geography should render that plan unfeasible.

Even optimistic forecasters believe it should take at least one year for the new state to become official. Detractors secretly hope Telangana will be mired in legislation and perhaps never happen. But in any case, the Indian government will be spending much time and resources on this issue for years to come.

Written by pavanvan

December 11, 2009 at 7:21 pm