India still struggles to define the states that make it one

It was easy to recall India's struggle against British imperialism as the former cabinet minister K Chandrashekar Rao threatened to fast until death last month. This Gandhian act, with all its associated imagery, forced New Delhi to make concessions towards the break up of Andhra Pradesh and the separate state of Telangana. Underneath the media furore surrounding Mr Rao's successful fast, there are hidden issues about language, development and notions of the Indian state that are being re-examined.

Since 1956, states in India have been reorganised along linguistic lines. The drive to form states based on language started with the break away of Andhra, a Telugu speaking area, from Madras State. The Telugu speaking areas of, what was then, Madras were combined with the former princely state of Hyderabad to form modern Andhra Pradesh.  Most observers considered the linguistic divisions a success, based on the view that homogeneous states would spread development more evenly among their populations. But a look across the border to Pakistan shows that political boundaries based on language need not result in stability.

There is more to identity than language alone. Religious identity, such as the movement for the Sikh homeland of Khalistan, can also lead to a drive towards secession. Moreover, for many of the worst off in India, the larger issues of poverty and development provide a more important basis of identity than a common language. Andhra Pradesh is marked by large differences in development and wealth between its Andhra and Telangana portions. When the state was formed, there was a fear that Andhra, with higher levels of education and development and more arable land, would come to dominate the union. Certainly disparities in wealth did persist, with the majority of poverty-related suicides by farmers concentrated in Telangana. Economics, not the unifying factor of the Telugu language, were stronger in creating regional identities.

At the formation of Andhra Pradesh in 1956 a "gentlemen's agreement" was hatched to prevent discrimination against Telangana. There was discontent with the flawed application of the agreement, such as major irrigation projects benefiting Andhra disproportionately, but when the agreement was set to lapse in 1969, a movement to keep it going expanded into a demand for a separate state of Telangana. After 40 years of demonstrations, violence and finally the hunger strike of Mr Rao, the leader of the main separatist party, the central government led by India's Congress Party capitulated with the recent announcement that it would begin to work towards a separate state.

To understand the implications of this recent trend in favour of Telangana's separate statehood, there are a few major issues to consider. Firstly, the idea of linguistic states being necessary to prevent secessionist movements was born from the trauma of partition. With the separation of Pakistan, based on religious rather than linguistic grounds, identity began to be seen as a major threat to the unity of the country. Giving into demands for states based on language in many parts of India was seen as one way to defuse the threat of factional identity to the unity of the country.

Most of what India has seen as existential threats have been based on identity, from Pakistan to the Khalistan movement, but the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh recently has said that the greatest threat is the Maoist insurgencies that have spread across rural areas under the loose affiliation of the Naxalites. The Congress Party's understanding of the issue was underscored by the defeat of its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was ousted from government partly because of its inability to answer the demands of the rural majority.

But this does not mean that the Congress Party is entirely behind such a shift. As the party in control of Andhra Pradesh, it has much to lose from the break-up of the state. The current backtracking on Telangana by the Congress Party, after its initial support after Rao's fast, needs to be seen in this light. And there is no assurance that moving away from language-based states towards those focusing on regional and local needs will result in progress towards development. Jharkhand was formed as an independent state separate from Bihar in 2000 based on the demands of tribal peoples of the area. The separation was justified on the grounds of better development and opportunities for those who felt they were not represented in Bihar. Yet little has changed and Jharkhand finds itself at the centre of the Maoist insurgency.

This movement from a system of states based on language to more regionalised needs is a domestic process that parallels the growing maturity of India on the world stage. The challenges that Telangana will face if it gains statehood will still be many, as evidenced by the states that have previously broken from the language-based model.  If the seduction to fall into mismanagement and corruption is avoided, there is no natural reason that it should fail. Despite its arid soil, Telangana will still have the major technology centre of Hyderabad, providing a solid base to create a financially viable state. What is at stake in Telangana may not be the exaggerated fears of India's dissolution, but a test case of the success of this new model of statehood.

Talha Aquil is a consultant who has compiled political risk assessments for companies seeking to invest in South Asia

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