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Dangerous signal

Anwar Ashraf, Priya Esselborn / sb
August 1, 2013

The controversial decision to create the new state of Telangana has many people worried throughout India. While the government approves the idea, critics fear the decay of the country's unity.

Telangana supporters cheer as they celebrate after the announcement of the separate state of Telangana at their party headquarters in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad July 30, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)
Image: Reuters

"Mother India gives birth to her 29th baby at the age of 66," reads the front page of an edition of the "Times of India" newspaper after a committee created by the ruling Congress Party approved the creation of the new state Telangana. Since the decision was made, there has been a lot of tension in many parts of India.

In the technology capital Hyderabad, there were riots and demonstrations by both opponents and supporters of the decision. The demontrators threw stones and set fire to cars; stores and schools remained closed. Hundreds of people were arrested. After decades of fighting, Telangana, located in the southeast of India, is now to be split and formed from the state Andhra Pradesh. Does this mean the structure of Indian federalism is at risk? Is the country's unity at risk?

Many interest groups

Dozens of groups have been fighting for their own state in India - some for many years. Roshan Giri, from the Gorkhas freedom movement, announced a general strike for August 3, 2013 and emphasized: "If there is to be the state Telangana, there must also be the state Gorkhaland." The Gorkhas, a Nepalese-speaking minority living in the Darjeeling area of the state of West Bengal, made their demands for the first time in 1907.

The list of movements fighting for their own state for ethnic, linguistic or economic reasons is quite long. For example, there is a movement to create a state called Vidarbha which would emcompass the impoverished region of Maharashtra. In the northeastern state of Assam, the Bodo tribe has been demanding its own state, despite already having a great amount of autonomy. And Mayawati, the former chief minster of the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, proposed the division of the state during her time in office.

Analyst and policy advisor K. G. Suresh of New Delhi believes that the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity is a huge challenge for the world's largest democracy, with its 1.2 billion people.

Indian students of the Telangana Joint Action Committee (T-JAC) overturn barricades as police prevent the students from marching to the 'Assembly' during a pro-Telangana protest in Hyderabad on June 13, 2013. (Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
The formation of Telangana has caused riots and demonstrations throughout IndiaImage: NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

"What the discussion surrounding Telangana has shown is that the central government is very weak. For a long time, it used to be that the ruling party in the central government was also in power in most of the states, so there was stability. But now, the central government is dependent upon dozens of regional coalition partners," Suresh explained.

"And those are small parties which have a very strong base in their respective states." That's why, according to the expert, questions of identity and territory have started moving into the foreground - a stark contradiction to India's founding myth.

A political move

The Congress Party, which together with the largest opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), approved the creation of Telangana, is itself divided . Over ten ministers from Andhra Pradesh's government, among them Minister for Law and Justice E. Pratap Reddy, have resigned.

"We want a united Andhra Pradesh," Reddy said. "We have resigned from our posts as ministers. But we will not leave the Congress Party."

Influential Congress politician Digvijaya Singh emphasized: "Dividing a state in two is like dividing a family in two. It is surely a difficult decision. But these decisions have to be made sometimes if there are legitimate interests."

But the decision leaves behind a bad aftertaste, according to K. G. Suresh. Because it is about votes. "Making such a huge decision seven or eight months ahead of the next elections definitely has a political motivation, despite all legitimate interests because not even the Congress Party can see how things will go." Suresh warns this could be a dangerous signal, as it could give hope to any kind of movement with interests created out of thin air. A decision this big must be thoroughly examined case by case, he said.

Bangla O Bangla Bhasa Bachao Committee activists shout slogans against formation of Gorkhaland on the eve of a 48-hour opposing strike in Siliguri on July 31, 2013, on the final day of a 72-hour strike called by Gorkha People's Liberation Front (GJM) that coincided with the decision by the Congress leadership approving the creation of Telangana. (Photo: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images)
The Gorkhas have also long demanded their own state, GorkhalandImage: AFP/Getty Images/Diptendu Dutta

Solving problems?

The last new states were formed in the year 2000: Jharkhand was split from Bihar, Chattisgarh was formed out of Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand was made out of Uttar Pradesh. Analyst K. G. Suresh sees the formation of these three states neither as a success nor as a failure. Smaller states sometimes are simply easier to govern, he said, but larger states also have their advantages. "Two questions are important when it comes to splitting a state: One, whether it makes economic and administrative sense, and second, whether the split will solve other problems, for example questions of inequality."

Andhra Pradesh is currently India's fifth largest state. Telangana will have a population of around 35 million. For the first 10 years after the separation, Hyderabad is to be the shared capital of both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The decision must still be approved by parliament, but because it has support from the BJP, this will be simply a matter of formality.

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