The Road That Led to Telangana


(The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Hyderabad.)

The southern state of Andhra Pradesh was formed in 1956, with Hyderabad as its capital, on the principle of reorganizing Indian states on a linguistic basis. Andhra Pradesh combined the Telugu-speaking region of the former princely state of Hyderabad and the Telugu-speaking region of Seemandhra, which was part of the Madras Presidency. Hyderabad was a ruled by a princely ruler, the Nizam, and supervised by a British resident, and the Seemandhra region was ruled directly by the British authorities. The Seemandhra region includes four southern districts of Rayalseema region, and the nine districts of Coastal Andhra, along the shore of Bay of Bengal.

On July 30, the Congress Party, which leads the governing coalition of the central government, endorsed the creation of Telangana as the 29th state of India by dividing Andhra Pradesh. The decision culminated a 57-year-old troubled relationship between the two Telugu-speaking regions, which had been combined to form Andhra Pradesh.

The decision to create the state of Telangana by separating the two regions was brought about by a sustained agitation by the elites and the masses of Telangana over the last 14 years. They faced opposition to their demand from the elites and the middle classes of Seemandhra, who have been advocating the continuation of a united state for the Telugus.

The idea of Andhra Pradesh as a larger region of Telugu-speaking people came out of the aspirations of the united Communist Party of India in the 1950s. The Communists had been at the forefront of organizing the peasants and workers in the two Telugu-speaking regions, Seemandhra and Telangana. In the Hyderabad state, especially in the Telangana region, the Communist Party organized a major armed struggle from 1946 to 1951 on behalf of the peasants and workers against the landlords and the princely ruler Nizam. In Seemandhra too, the Communists mobilized vast sections of peasants, agricultural tenants and workers against the landlords of the region. The formation of Andhra Pradesh was expected to lead to faster development of its people and ensure social justice for the oppressed people from both regions.

By 1956, when Andhra Pradesh was created, the Communist Party had been sidelined. The Communists were defeated in electoral politics by their refusal to form coalitions with other political groups, and the Congress Party’s anti-Communist campaign in the elections that preceded the creation of the state of Andhra Pradesh. The landed elites and the incipient business classes of the Seemandhra and the landed elites of Telangana region stood with the Congress Party, which governed India at the time. These two sets of elites harbored mutual suspicions from the very beginning, influencing the interactions between the two regions.

By the late 1960s, it became clear that this relationship between the elites had become rocky. Seemandhra had greater exposure to commerce, a modern state, the experience of social reforms among the middle classes and the enormous mobilizations that happened under the nationalist movement against the British. Telangana, on the other hand, also witnessed some exposure to commerce, a very different state under the Nizam (which had a mixture of modern and traditional patrimonial authority), and lesser exposure to the mainstream of the nationalist movement.
In the late 1960s, there was already a strong sense, especially in Telangana that the Seemandhra had monopolized state power and therefore public resources, public sector employment and the water resources. At that time, three agitations broke out. A separate Telangana movement was led by the old landed elites and the urban middle classes, which also mobilized popular support. A separate Andhra movement was led by the landed and business elites of Seemandhra, though it received popular support because the Indian Supreme Court had endorsed the exclusive claim of the Telangana locals, also known as Mulkis, for certain government jobs. The Communists, much weaker by 1971-72, led the movement for a united Andhra Pradesh. The Indian government, led by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, crushed the first two agitations by force and kept the state together, after working out a compromise formula.

The question of a separate Telangana did not surface in any serious way for another 25 years, even though there was a continued muted sense of mutual suspicion. Between the early 1970s and the late 1990s, several important and interdependent processes emerged in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

A strong Maoist movement broke out in the Telangana region. The Maoists fought for the interests of a small and marginal peasantry, agricultural workers and tribal people and also hoped to overthrow the government. The Maoist insurgency led to an elite flight from the villages, where the movement was strong, into towns and cities.

On the other hand, the famed Telugu actor N.T. Rama Rao, leader of the newly created Telugu Desam Party, had become chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in 1983. Mr. Rao brought about two important administrative reforms. The first one was the abolition of the Karanam or Patwari, or village accountant, system, monopolized by the upper caste communities and used to control land transactions, which paved the way for a stronger role for elected officials at the village level.

He also introduced a revised revenue system of block, or mandals, governance that inserted an intermediate electoral political layer between the village and the district. Both these moves created powerful vehicles for political and economic mobility that led to the strengthening of the somewhat large and disparate set of caste groups that are known as Other Backward Classes, or O.B.C.’s, at the village, block and district levels in Telangana. While the scheduled castes and the upper castes largely remained with the Congress Party, the perceived opportunities for mobility by the O.B.C.’s that form more than 65 percent of the total population in Telangana provided the sense that a united Andhra Pradesh state had space for people of all regions.

Even as the Maoist movement was going on, there was a major spurt in agricultural production in the Telangana region during the 1980s and 1990s, as Telangana farmers shifted to commercial crops and Green Revolution technologies like tube well irrigation on the basis of a sustained state support, like public investment, institutional credit and extension services. By the late 1990s, structural adjustment policies of the Indian government cut down the public investment in agriculture, kept institutional credit at very low levels and cut down various subsidies to farmers. As loans became costlier to obtain from informal credit markets and tube well irrigation led to unsustainable and costly groundwater exploitation, the agricultural growth process ran into constraints. A spate of farmer suicides began in Telangana in 1998.

The state of Andhra Pradesh also saw the emergence of its own business class with political interests by the time economic reforms were introduced in 1991 in India. This business class emerged, almost completely, from the landed and the rich agrarian classes of the Seemandhra through state patronage. Telangana elites did not find an easy entry into this. Within the Seemandhra too, while the elite in the four southern districts of Rayalseema amassed vast wealth and political power, the majority of Rayalseema’s population remained even poorer than the people of Telangana.

The new capitalists of Andhra Pradesh migrated from rural areas to the urban centers of the state like Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, Vijayawada and Tirupati. There was also a substantial consolidation of professional and middle classes, which included I.T. workers or state bureaucratic workers in Hyderabad and other urban centers of the state. It created a spiral of city-centered (mainly Hyderabad) enclave based growth that kept out vast numbers of the poor from the larger economic growth processes.

The new elite was also somewhat regionally structured, with different regional groups articulating the cultural differences among themselves. In addition, the economic and cultural elites of the Seemandhra portrayed Telangana people as backward or inferior in cultural or linguistic terms in films, media and literature. For example, in Telugu films, only villains or comedians spoke the Telangana version of spoken Telugu. The unequal integration of regional elites in economic, political and cultural terms led to the next phase of separatism in the late 1990 that culminated in the July 30 announcement of a new state of Telangana.

The elites that had fled in the 1980s from villages, the newly prosperous members of the Other Backward Classes, several progressive outfits and different political parties came together in fighting for a separate Telangana. Each group had a different reason to join the demand for a separate state, but each felt a sense of grievance in a united Andhra Pradesh. This time around, the battle was between those fighting for a separate Telangana and those that were fighting for a united Andhra Pradesh state, with the latter group seeing the present Hyderabad as a commonly created space.

The new Telangana comes with many conflicting aspirations and promises. Its elites have an intense desire for the economic success of their counterparts in Seemandhra and they might follow the same enclave-based model of economic growth. The common people have a desire for better access to resources like irrigation, public employment or a supportive welfare state.

There has also been a spectacular consolidation of religious right in the lead up to the announcement of the separation. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has considerably strengthened its political forces, despite its minor presence in the current legislature, because the Congress Party was dithering on the issue of creating a separate state while B.J.P. sounded more decisive. In an expected backlash, the Muslim political group, Majlis-e Ittehadul Muslimeen, which is strong in the city of Hyderabad, has been lukewarm about the separate Telangana movement.

It is not clear how these conflicts will play out in the new state. One hopes that the repressed aspirations of those fighting for social justice since the 1940s for a democratic state that will aid fast-paced development, especially for the common masses, will finally be realized instead of the enclave-based growth model that has marginalized the majority, including the common people of Telangana.

[Courtesy New York Times]

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