The Telangana Factor

How special interests influence the debate on federalism

India’s new state didn’t come about easily. Neither will future attempts at state creation. MAHESH KUMAR / AP IMAGES
01 January, 2010

ONE HUNDRED AND SEVEN YEARS later India is caught in the same puzzle—state creation. In December, when a 40-year-old movement succeeded to make the central government allow for a new Telangana state dividing Andhra Pradesh, a dozen similar demands awoke: Gorkhaland (north of West Bengal), Bundelkhand (split between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), Harit Pradesh (western Uttar Pradesh), Bodoland (north of the Brahmaputra river in Assam), Kamtapur (split between West Bengal and Assam), Saurashtra (the southern peninsula of Gujarat), Vidarbha (eastern Maharashtra), Kodagu (southern Karnataka), Bagelkhand (northeastern Madhya Pradesh), and a few more.

These demands elicited familiar questions: Should the Centre redraw internal maps when a sizeable population demands to carve out a new federal unit? Isn’t 28 states and seven union-controlled territories enough? And if the government yields to one demand, wouldn’t several such demands arise in the multi-lingual, multi-cultural India? Where does it end?

But this line of thought is flawed. It fails to address the fundamental questions of economic and social justice that underpin these demands. For example, the Backward Regions Grant Fund ( shows that most of the poorest districts in the country fall in disputed regions. Our policy makers have myriad studies showing the smaller the administrative units, the better the resource distribution becomes. And if the homogenous USA, with only a quarter of the Indian population can have 50 states, India, with 1.1 billion people of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual origins has a case for at least 35 to 40.

So why do we wait for decades and watch several hundred die before we permit the creation of new states? (In the case of Telangana, for example, it took 40 years and 400 deaths—370 from police firing in 1968 and 35 from suicides in 2009—to recognise the democratic aspirations of a people.) Because: a shrewd, systemic, and powerful resistance subverts the Centre’s political will every time the issue of new state formation comes up for discussion.

This resistance is predicated on three main factors: first, the idea of mere aesthetics—how the country’s architecture appears; secondly, power and resource control; and thirdly, a belief of cultural, moral or ethnic supremacy of the majority group in each of these disputed regions.

Let us begin with aesthetics. Most urban Indians  are used to seeing the map of the country with familiar borders and names. They perceive far-off populations as an abstraction. In other words, the elite are out of sync with the effect of administrative neglect in the daily lives of a cotton farmer in Gondia, Vidarbha, or a barley sharecropper in Jalaun, Bundelkhand.

But the most influential resistance comes from a select few people in power, who have much to lose with the creation of a new state. Such resistance is often led by politicians, local businessmen and merchants who have been gaining at the expense of another region’s underdevelopment.

The best example of this is Telangana itself. With just under half the land and population of Andhra Pradesh, it’s logical to assume that Telangana gets a corresponding share of state resources in education, irrigation, infrastructure development, poverty eradication, etc. But that was never the case. Coastal Andhra, which comprises roughly a 40 percent share in land and population, and Rayalseema, which comprises around 20 percent, have always benefited more. Their politicians have traditionally been more educated, more vocal and hailed from upper castes.

The Gentlemen’s Agreement with Telangana leaders in 1956; the President’s Six-Point Formula in 1973, and a number of court judgments show discrimination against Telangana is acknowledged fact. But even after that, public resources continued to be distributed unevenly. Irrigation, for instance. Telangana has an estimated cultivable area of six million hectares and coastal Andhra four million hectares. Through a canal irrigation system, which is funded by both the central and state government, 28 percent of the cultivable land in coastal Andhra is being irrigated compared to only four percent of Telangana. And the state funding spent in Telangana so far is just over four billion rupees , not even a quarter of the roughly 20 billion rupees spent in coastal Andhra, according to Prof. Vishweshwer Rao of Osmania University. The disparity is equally stark in education, rural development, etc. This lopsided distribution of public resources can be found in all disputed states.

The disparate investment in Telangana makes sense when you consider who’s been running the state. In Andhra Pradesh’s 63-year history, it’s been ruled for 57 years by Chief Ministers from coastal Andhra or Rayalseema.

But there is one part of Telangana that coastal Andhra and Rayalseema politicians have invested in. Hyderabad. Since the mid-90s they have put down major stakes in Hyderabad city, which they now fear will go to Telangana, since Hyderabad falls within the borders of the now proposed Telangana state.

So while the IT hub of Hyderabad glitters, nine out of ten districts in Telangana are in the most backward districts in the country. This might explain why resources were invested only in the city, an area of a few radial miles, benefiting just a few people. Those with significant stakes in Hyderabad include Ramalinga Raju, former CEO of Satyam, who is now jailed in a 1.5 billion dollar fraud; Chandrababu Naidu, leader of the Telungu Desam Party and former Chief Minister, a wealthy man who once owned only a few acres of arid land in Rayalseema, and Jagan Reddy, the 36-year old son of former Chief Minister YSR Reddy, whose name is often linked with the infamous mining brothers of Bellary, the Reddys. (Coincidentally, the brothers and Jagan are unrelated.) With Hyderabad gone, many coastal Andhra and Rayalseema politicians and businessmen will suffer.

One prominent lawyer in Hyderabad explained to me how land ownership, the single most important issue against the formation of Telangana, plays out. In the last several years, large areas of prime public land in Hyderabad—the Jagir land (the land once given away by Nizam to his military officers, and acquired back by the state), the Wakf board land (the land once given to and now administered by Muslim community leaders), Inam land (land given for the landless tillers), ceiling land (land taken over by the government as per ceiling acts) and direct government land (government owned land)—have been ‘regularised’ without proper legal process in the name of ‘growth’ and ‘investment.’ And if there is a thorough investigation, the lawyer says, it will be devastating for many politicians and businessmen. (I thought it best that this lawyer, who defended such a case from the Malkajigiri area in Hyderabad, go unnamed with Hyderabad’s currently charged political climate). But his points illustrate how the powerful interests of local politicians and businessmen can first deny, then delay the 40-year-old movement.

This resistance isn’t unique to Telangana. For every demand for a separate state in the country, a powerful local lobby backed by money and influence is working against it.

The third kind of resistance is the quietly spoken claims of cultural and nationalistic supremacy of the dominant culture. This manifests itself in statements like, ‘The Nepalis should go to Nepal, and the Adibasis should go to Jharkhand,’ and characterising the Gorkhas as ‘the uncultured, uneducated hill people,’ The people of Gorkhaland, north of Bengal, have for decades endured comments of a similar nature. These slights, along with gross underdevelopment, have often made them feel like second-class citizens. They are frequently asked, for example, why they just can’t speak Bengali. They call this Bengali chauvinism. It’s a loaded word, to be sure, but there is clearly a sense of national and cultural supremacy that the Gorkhas feel in their interaction with the Bengali Bhadralok, the Bangla-speaking upper caste Brahmins and Kayasthas. The dominant communities, in this case, Bengalis, historically had much greater representation in Kolkata and New Delhi, and the ethnic minorities like Gorkhas and Kamtapuris have found it hard to withstand the cultural hegemony of the dominant group.

Such is the sociology of resistance against state formation demands. So from Lord Curzon’s India to today’s, the formation of smaller federal units remains a very difficult political task. But after how many more years of lopsided development, and at the cost of how many more lives, will the question of federalism be settled in India? I don’t know. But I know one thing: most of these demands are footed on meritorious democratic grounds. In order to properly address these questions, we need to shift the discussion from one which makes the rich and the powerful feel comfortable to one that addresses the fundamental disparities in social justice and resource allocation.