Telangana Thoughts

The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion.

There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day.

But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition?

What happened in 1947? For Macaulay’s children – “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” – tradition was equated with backwardness and the ways of Europe with modernity. It was the fashion of the time, the European nation-state, which served as the model for the reorganization of India.

Could this be considered an irony? It were the traditional states that lost their identity and were merged into the alien British provinces as India was reorganized into 14 provinces and 7 union territories. One could conceive a process in which the British provinces could have been absorbed back into the princely states which could then have been rationalized by the merging of the many postage-stamp sized ones into their larger neighbors. This process could have yielded an outcome with, say, fifty sub-national units.

But this would have called for a different India, one that would have built on its own traditions. The British deviation, with its preference for ‘Anglicists’ over ‘Orientalists’ with which Indians went along, sent it on a trajectory that is now being painfully reversed. India began with 14 states that had few roots in tradition; it almost doubled the number in 1971 using language as a criterion. The direction was right but the criterion was just as arbitrary as the one used in 1947. Is this becoming evident now when language-based states are themselves fragmenting?

It is worth noting that the arguments from above for reorganization are couched in the fashionable discourse of efficiency and better governance. But the demands from below are really about the recognition of identity. And what better identity can there be than one rooted in tradition, a tradition that was sacrificed at the altar of modernity?

This speculation must address one aspect that would undoubtedly come up immediately – the popular image of the princely rulers as sybaritic and incompetent wastrels. While surely some amongst the 500 or so rulers would have qualified for these epithets, the general characterization is a gross caricature. That was how the British wanted the rulers to be seen to justify their encroachments and that is what their policies indirectly encouraged. Once all real authority for governance was taken out of the hands of the hereditary rulers, they had nothing left to do with their forced leisure than to fall into the stereotype, and some indeed did. In actual fact, prior to the British interventions, many of the states were quite well governed, often better than they are governed today, a recollection that lives on in many memories.

The evolution of the Indian Union can be contrasted with that of the Malayan Union which was established in 1946 as a single crown colony incorporating all nine traditional states in the territory. This union was dissolved in 1948 to be replaced by the Federation of Malaya restoring the autonomy of the rulers (Sultans) in the Malay states under British protection. While modern Malaysia has a parliamentary system of governance, the federal head of state is the king who is elected to a five-year term among the nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states.

The Malaysian experience is highlighted only to refute the inevitable objections that such an outcome would never have been possible in South Asia. It was an outcome that needed a self-confidence and a sense of history on the part of the Indian elites. It reflects a mix of tradition and modernity that provides both a sense of identity to citizens and continuity to politics, one that provides an evolutionary path as the population itself modernizes, and one that the British themselves have not discarded at home. The absence of such continuity has been felt less in India than in Pakistan and Bangladesh that are rent apart at every political transition without the stabilizing symbolic figures with whom the citizens can identify.

The challenge for India now is to find a way to contain its fragmentation having given up the framework that could have provided it an anchor in tradition. What are the options and what is the logic that would govern the process?


  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:14h, 16 December Reply

    (i) I think more detail is needed about the power of Sultans in Malaysia to conclude whether they in fact have continued their tradition in any meaningful terms alongside modern institutions

    (ii) In relation to Telangana, what was the quality of the rule of the Nizam? I believe it was “sybaritic and incompetent”. So relative to Telangana, it may be more to do with bad governance post-independence (where the elected representatives from Telangana were constantly marginalized by the ruling Congress) and less to do with identity. It is also possible that the former fed the latter i.e. constant marginalization created a common sense of identity among the Telangana people.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:53h, 16 December

      Vinod: I agree it would be very helpful if we can get an input from someone who has followed developments in Malaysia more closely. At the same time, we can make some indirect inferences for ourselves – the proof of the pudding as they say is in the eating. When the British left Asia my guess is that countries like India and Malaysia must have been over 80% rural and over 80% illiterate. The Indian rural areas were then governed by ‘modern’ institutions like the IAS with its Commisioners while the Malaysian states continued to live with what are considered ‘repressive’ and ‘regressive’ traditional rulers. Yet, the Malaysian countryside has done far better than the Indian one with a lot less misery and a lot less unrest. So, something must have worked in Malaysia either despite or because of the mix of traditional and modern governance.

      My sense is that in Malaysia the power of the tradtional rulers has been continually circumscribed over the years shifting to the modern institutions but it is the sense of continuity that has played an important part in facilitating the transition for the citizens. This sense of continuity and familiarity is a human need that has to be accomodated in any grand visions of modernization. In some ways this brings us back to the notion of ‘creeping normalcy’ – things change without causing social and cultural disorientation.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 01:51h, 17 December Reply

    I dont think that linguistic states are fragmenting. Where is the evidence for this ? Telangana has been an issue for years, more than 400 lives were lost in agitations in the late 60s. All the other states, such as Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Kerala and Punjab are quite stable.

    The Gorkhaland issue is a complex one and cannot really be put in the same basket as Telangana. You are also forgetting that states have been created before (Mizoram, Uttaranchal, Jharkhand etc) without much instability resulting.

    I refer once again to Robin Jeffrey’s ‘India’s Newspaper Revolution’, where he points out that the strong regional identities were created in India only after the spread of Indian language newspapers, which have by and large tended to reinforce the state and Indian identity.

    And I think you are forgetting that the Telangana protesters were waving Indian flags, I dont think fragmentation is a threat for India, and if anything, the traditional systems tended to reinforce a fragmented polity, not a coherent one.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:23h, 17 December

      Vikram: Fragmentation was not the best term to use. I did not mean it in the sense of India splitting into independent states like the USSR but rather in the sense of being reorganized into smaller and smaller units. Immediately after the Telangana decision there was talk of carving out four more states from UP. The speculative thought that came to my mind was whether at the end of the reorganization process India would look more like the India of the princely states rather than the India of the British provinces. And whether this whole detour was necessary in any sense. If so, what was the value added? The point about the traditional systems was that they did not reinforce a fragmented polity in Malaysia. So, is it just a case of our bias against traditional systems associating them with backwardness as we did in 1947?

      There is nothing really wrong with smaller and more units – the US has 50 states and Vietnam with an even smaller population has more than 80. The interesting issue is where is the stable equilibrium for India?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 12:10h, 17 December Reply

    I am curious why there is violent opposition to break up of a state. Is it our inherent possessive nature or is it fear of dilution of authority? Demand for state comes from a region within a state for being ignored or overwhelmed by an ethnically different group. I can’t see why smaller states are a problem.

    Assam is a strange example where demand for states comes from regions smaller than many districts in MP and Rajasthan. Is it because of sense of ethnic identity very strong and rivalry ages old.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:55h, 17 December

      Anil: I agree small states should not be a problem. The question is how small will they get before the process stops?

      I am intrigued by the process – what drives it and how do countries deal with it? The US is in a steady-state equilibrium. Countries like Vietnam and China are stable and proactive – they have a formula for creating new provinces when certain criteria are met. For example, in Vietnam a city gets provincial status when its population exceeds a pre-determined threshhold. India is clearly in a disequilbrium, is dealing with it, but has a reactive approach – people go on fasts-to-death or die or there is agitation before the authorities are prodded into action. This sets up the expectation that agitation can be used to obtain more rights and adds complexity to the process. Pakistan is in a severe disequilbrium but does not wish to deal with it at all. So there is a whole range of ways to engage with this issue and it is of interest to speculate why different countries choose different ways of doing so.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 13:11h, 18 December

      I think just the language criteria is not good enough. It appears to me that all the movements for separate states have legitimate claims. Vidharbh and Telengana have been ignored for a very long time. Gorkhas have little ethnic affinity with mainstream population of the state. I have little knowledge of Bodos but they appear to be quite antagonistic of Assamese.

      While there are not yet any significant movements for Harit Pradesh, Bundelkhand etc but division of UP simply for the sake of easy management is desirable. Why should we wait for a movement to begin, can’t we be proactive and look for regions being ignored and give them their due?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 05:21h, 19 December


      I can think of at least three factors that go into determinng the stability of a political union. First, the size of the Union in terms of area, second the diversity of the population in that area governed and third the history of the people in the area. The second and third are inter-related points. They can be put together to restate it as the extent to which that diversity has been culturally stable when historically viewed.

      I don’t think Europe can ever become a political union although it apparently is on the way there. I don’t think it will ever materialize. Although it is small in area it’s diversity has not shown cultural stability in the sense that its diversity has had too many antagonisms within it historically.

      I believe that the US too will break up in the distant future although there are no real signs of such tendencies as of now. It’s diversity is getting more and more complex and is not being managed well. It is also too large to be centrally managed. Such a breakup can be avoided if further decentralization takes place.

      I don’t think China’s equilibrium is a stable one when seen at what’s going on in Xinjiang and Tibet. The rest of China shows equilibrium because it is largely composed of a single ethnic and linguistic group – the han chinese.

      I don’t know much about Vietnam’s diversity to explain its 80 provinces within a small area. Vietnam could be the Achilles Heel of my budding hypothesis.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:52h, 19 December

      Vinod: I was using the term ‘stability’ in a very restricted context limited to the boundaries of sub-national units (provinces or states). So, if in a polity there were no political demands for redrawing of sub-national boundaries, it was stable in that restricted sense. In this framework China can be considered stable because there are no demands for redrawing the boundaries of Xinkiang or Tibet. Of course, there are other degrees of instability – there may be conflict within a province with stable boundaries, provinces may want greater autonomy within stable boundaries, or states may wish to secede from a union. Pakistan has had all four – there is conflict in the Frontier province, the East wing seceded, Balochistan demands greater autonomy, and some Seraiki speakers in Punjab want their own province.

      You are using ‘stability’ in a much broader sense in talking about the stability of the political union itself. Here I feel size is not really an important determinant – quite small countries like Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Belgium have had problems. The real issue is diversity and how one deals with it. It is quite true that homogeneous units have fewer problems but we should not consider differences to be everlasting. At one time Protestants and Catholics could not co-exist in Europe; now that difference hardly matters. In this context, the Indian vision – unity in diversity – is the right one and all our efforts should be towards its realization. Every individual has to be seen as a fellow citizen and a fellow human being to be governed by laws that are independent of arbitrary elements of identity.

  • Vijay
    Posted at 01:40h, 18 December Reply

    I find the allusion to tradition slightly problematic. Even if we were to cast aside the grafting of the European nation-state onto India, there is that large elephant in the room, Partition.

    Surely, the greatest departure from “tradition” lies in the compartmentalisation of populations and geographies that have inhabited the same political and cultural space for a very long time. The Bengalis with the Bengalis and the Punjabis with the Punjabis, not to forget those poor Muhajirs.

    If there’s anything that makes the political orders on the Subcontinent unsustainable it is the status-quo of competing nationalisms occupying the same civilisational space. Bangladesh in particular seems to have little animating its existence, at least Pakistan has masculine Muslim nationalism and India-othering. Knee-jerk state reorganisation then, pales in comparison.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:00h, 18 December

      Vijay: I wouldn’t brush aside the state reorganization because it pales in comparison with the scale of the partition. For present-day India it is an important process and it is useful to think about its possible paths and stopping points. That should lead to a consideration of sensible and feasible public policy initiatives that would strengthen the Indian Union.

      I would rephrase your description of the partition. The outcome was certainly the creation of competing nationalisms in the same civilizational space – something that has been, and will continue to be, very damaging. This is a very heavy price that we have paid for a break with tradition. The break with tradition occurred when the British introduced electoral representation before India was ready for it. To make matters worse, they chose religion as the dominant marker of identity (hence the earlier divsion of Bengal) creating a binary polarity – the most unstable possible. Because the number of languages is much greater there are more possibilities of compromise. This process of the making of identity in British India (based on the excellent book by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik) is summarized on the blog in the series of posts on Democracy in India.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:14h, 18 December Reply

    I recommend this blog on the details of the Telangana issue –

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:04h, 19 December Reply

    I have to say that I am extremely disappointed with the debate on the Telangana issues in the English media, every one from Kuldip Nayyar of the Dawn to columnists of the Indian Express are hell bent on beating the issue down with the ‘lets worry about development’ stick. I only wish someone could tell us what kinds of debate the Telugu press has had on the issue.

    Pratap Bhanu Mehta was the only one I thought who cam close to a perceptive analysis,

    But all in all, the English speaking Indians really need to get over their hubris.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:53h, 19 December

      Vikram: I too was struck by such a seasoned person as Kuldip Nayyar making a remark like ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ Issues don’t go away if they are ignored and this is an attitude that leaves India always being reactive and caught on the wrong foot.

      It has been one of my concerns that most of the news that the outside world get is through the English language press and it is by no means a voice that represents the majority in India. So, it would be nice if someone can fill us in on what the various local language mediums are saying about the issue.

      Mehta makes very valid points but he has used Telangana as a peg to dilate on a different issue. He is quite right that there is much talk about the virtues of decentralization without any focus on what is needed to make decentralization work. Once again we are face to face with the tyranny of fashion. This is the bane of South Asia – we rarely think for ourselves, matching our problems with our solutions. It is always some borrowed mantra; no wonder the timing is always wrong – either too early or too late.

  • Aakar Patel
    Posted at 06:35h, 24 December Reply

    In response to Anil Kala (why is there opposition?), the answer is control of Hyderabad, which falls in Telangana, and revenues. Imagine Maharashtra without Bombay or Sindh without Karachi.

    The language press outside Andhra Pradesh is reporting the story as a Congress problem rather than one of the state, in which few are interested in (at least in Gujarati and Hindi newspapers).

    The Telugu press is divided by caste and political party. Eenadu owner Ramoji Rao supports Chandrababu Naidu and so the paper is talking about the Congress’s lack of leadership and vacillation, as is Naidu.
    Andhra Bhoomi/Deccan Chronicle owner TVR Reddy is a Congress MP and so his papers first supported and now opposes the movement.

    I worked in Andhra Pradesh for a year a decade ago and it did not seem to me that there was a divide based on identity, and certainly not one that was festering.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 08:15h, 25 December

      Aakar: It is dangerous to turn something like this into an exclusively political and partisan issue. As I have mentioned both the Chinese and the Vietnamese have a positive perspective on taking major cities out of their provinces and giving them provincial status. The old province gets to promote a new city as its capital and the new province is also better governed. The problem with Karachi in Sindh is that Karachi is urban and cosmopolitan with people from all parts of the country but its governance is dominated by the rural Sindh majority. This is a negative outcome for both sides. Urban Karachi does not have enough votes to gets its legitimate concerns addressed through the democratic process – hence the resort to street power and Machiavellian politics.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 18:27h, 25 December

      This is perhaps not such a simple thing to do in India. Mumbai and Pune mean the same things to Maharashtrians as Berlin and Frankfurt mean to Germans. Same can be said of Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Lucknow etc. Many of these cities house movie industries of the respective languages, so the link between the state and city is more than just administrative.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:34h, 26 December

      I agree with Vikram. Cities are part of a region and belong to the natives of the region. It will always continue to invite settlers. Cities will be subjected to relgional politics. That is the way it is and that is the way it should be. Cities should not get separate treatment from other parts of a region except if it was a city that was developed from scratch like Islamabad by the central govt. But cities like Hyderabad that has had a long history as part of a region should remain part of the region in all aspects. The contrinution of non-natives to a city does not make the city belong to the non-natives. They will remain as settlers. And the city will belong to the natives. Andra people wanted Chennai to be part of their state because of their historic contribution to building that state. Gujaratis wanted Mumbai to be part of Gujarat because of their contribution. Fortunately, good sense prevaled in both these cases. Similarly, Hyderabad should without a doubt belong to the people of Telangana.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 11:49h, 30 December

      Vinod: We should have a discussion on the notion of a city belonging to natives. I have doubts about the idea of ownership of a city. I feel that everyone who lives in a city has equal rights as a resident of that city – the distinction between natives and settlers is opening the door to conflicts. Once we start thinking in terms of natives we could get bogged down in issues of old and new natives, etc. If we think of a city like London, what would it mean to say that it belongs to natives? In what way should the rights of British Indians living in London for 50 years be less than those of ‘natives’?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:57h, 04 January

      SA, In the Telangana dispute the issue is not about the fate of the city residents but about the fate of the city – where does it get its funds from? where does its revenue go? This is more determined by the history of the city and the wider geogrpahy it is situated in. What is not the issue is who gets to stay and who has to leave. This is the inner dynamic of the city and that is not the issue here.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:46h, 09 January

      Vinod: I am not sure I follow this line of thought. Where a city gets its funds and where its revenue goes is not generally determined by the history of a city and its wider geography. If this were the case the situation would differ for every city in a country. What is more usual is that revenue sharing is specified in the constitution of a country and applies uniformly to all cities in a given category. Of all the revenues generated, the city is entitled to retain a part and the rest goes to the center. For example, the city can retain property tax while sales tax may go to the center. Income tax is shared amongst the city, state, and center in fixed proportions. Similarly cities get funds from the center for infrastructure investments, poverty alleviation, etc. These arrangements are based on agreements that apply uniformly across cities.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 16:19h, 09 January

      Added to the above,
      (i) the labels ‘settlers’ and ‘natives’, in a significant sense notwithstanding Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, only adds a label to a pre-existing conflict. It does not amplify the conflict. It only makes the conflict concrete in the consciousness of the people.

      (ii) If the Singapore economy has mainly grown due to foreign investment, does Singapore belong to the foreign investors? How appropriate is this analogy to describe the Andhrite argument for Hyderabad?

      (iii) Is it possible to structure a mothballing accounting scheme of say 20 years that will distribute revenues from Hyderabad to Andhra region while keeping Hyderbad within Telangana? Would that be a feasible arrangement?

      (iv) If the Singapore analogy is wrong, how about the British investment in pre-independence India and the “rights” of the British relative to that? The British did make heavy investment in India and it was their education system that propelled Indians into modernity. It was their rail network that brought Indians together like never before. Does that make India a part of UK? In that context will the use of ’settlers’ for the British make it an appropriate usage?

  • Aakar Patel
    Posted at 02:37h, 26 December Reply

    South Asian, I agree. The opposition to Telangana is not based on anything positive.
    And re smaller states, Swaminathan Aiyar in the Times of India showed an acceleration in GDP growth in three newly created states that didn’t have a major city. Though another paper, the Telegraph, showed that for the same three states the HDI graph was in decline. I think that’s more short term and smaller states are better.

  • yayaver
    Posted at 03:27h, 04 March Reply

    Hi, there is an interesting debate going on over ‘Telengana issue’. Mostly there are reports coming in media pro and anti Telengana. One blog is really covering these issue very well with quite neutral stance over this issue. You can check it more for insight :

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:04h, 06 February Reply

    Indian: Given your perspective, you might find this analysis of the Telangana controversy of interest. I would be curious to read your views.

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