ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON in the summer of 2008, I found myself standing in a concrete building on the outskirts of Armoor, a town in the Nizamabad district of Andhra Pradesh. The building was called Garden City Function Hall, but apart from its bleak surroundings—the vegetation blasted dull yellow by months without rain—there was little to distinguish it from countless other such structures in India, usually rented out for weddings and celebrations. There was a hall with a stage, a lawn covered by a white tent, waiters dressed in jeans, waistcoats and shoes without socks and a few bedraggled swans in one corner.
The occasion that afternoon wasn’t a wedding. As the waiters circulated with glasses of water, a man with long hair and a splendidly oiled moustache climbed onto the stage and began singing, his right hand sometimes pressed to his heart, sometimes swept out in a gesture intended to raise people from their midday torpor. A chorus line of young boys, bare chested and in white dhotis, danced behind the singer, breaking out from time to time in a sheepish refrain of “Jai Telangana!” or “Victory to Telangana.”
They were demanding a new state called Telangana, an area of some 155,400 square kilometres to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, India’s fifth-largest state. I was a stranger to the region and had known nothing of the movement for Telangana until that afternoon, but the 100-odd people in the audience—ranging from farmers with calloused hands to lawyers wielding video cameras—were all there to support the demand. This was true of R Limbadri, a professor of public administration at Osmania University in Hyderabad, who had brought me to the event. Limbadri was a Dalit who had grown up in a nearby village, a man whose Chaplinesque moustache belied the childhood experience of humiliation and deprivation that he had transformed into a firm but good-humoured activism. When Limbadri addressed the gathering, therefore, he was less dramatic than the singer, saying that he supported the demand for Telangana, but only if this new state was envisioned differently, committed to ending the vast social and economic disparity that has marked Andhra Pradesh in recent years.