As Telengana Celebrates Its First Anniversary, A Look Back at How the Idea Was Born

02 June 2015
Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao successfully led the political movement for the creation of Telangana.

Nearly five decades after the demand for Telangana was first formulated, India's 29th state, carved out of Andhra Pradesh, completed a year of its existence today. K Chandrasekhar Rao (or KCR), the chief minister of the state, who is from the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), also completed one year in office and initiated the celebrations with a tribute at the Martyrs Memorial at the Gun Park in Hyderabad. Elaborate celebrations have reportedly been planned in all ten districts of the state, which will continue through the week. In this excerpt from The Wedge,’ published in our April 2014 issue, Praveen Donthi explains how KCR became the face of the Telangana movement.

THE IDEA OF A SEPARATE TELANGANA STATE has emerged and receded from India’s political landscape many times since independence, like a subterranean stream subject to tectonic shifts of power and influence. Following the constitution of the States Reorganisation Commission, Andhra Pradesh was the first state to be created on a linguistic basis, in 1956. Its formation required an uneasy compromise between the elites of three regions—landlocked but riverine Telangana, arid Rayalaseema, and the Coastal Andhra region—and had its sceptics from the start. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called the merger imperialist. When it went through, he assured people that it was a marriage with a “provision for divorce.”

Over time, Andhra Pradesh’s two dominant caste groups each came to control a political party. The Kammas, with roots in the four districts of the Andhra delta, took over the Telugu Desam Party, formed in 1982. The Reddys, largely located in Rayalaseema and parts of Telangana, dominated the state’s Congress party, and generally looked out for interests that were common to the two regions. But 90 percent of Telangana’s population consists of backward castes, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other minorities; when Andhra Pradesh was formed, safeguards had been put in place to protect this relatively disadvantaged population—but they were never enforced.

On this uneven foundation, future inequities piled up, deepening the divide between the region and its neighbours. In terms of economic and social advancement, Telangana remained relatively stagnant over the years: KCR sometimes lists the employment options in Telangana as “Bombai, Dubai, Boggu bai”—Bombay, Dubai, or the coalmine.

The idea of a Telangana separate from other Telugu-speaking regions had existed since almost the very beginning of Andhra Pradesh, gathering in political and cultural force over time. In Telangana-Andhra: Castes, Regions and Politics in Andhra Pradesh, activist Inukonda Thirumali wrote: “Telangana developed into a movement … for a separate state as a solution to the political crisis and for the democratic space of the subordinate classes.” Suppressed by the dominance of the Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra regions—known collectively as Seemandhra—this movement had periods of apparent dormancy, but was kept alive and nourished by the writings of Telangana’s left-wing intellectuals, the poetry of its singers, and by the blood of its supporters as it erupted, from time to time, into violent protest.

A politician or party would take up the cause now and again, but never in a sustained way until the 1990s, when the rise of regional parties and coalition governments created new intersections between popular movements and politics throughout India, including in Telangana. KCR, a four-time state assembly member who worked his way up from grassroots organiser to a cabinet minister, recognised the potential in building a political platform on the desire for a separate Telangana. In the separatist movement, he saw an opportunity to skew the balance of power in Andhra Pradesh away from the status quo of the Congress and the ruling Telugu Desam Party, of which he was a member, and to draw together diverse groups who would help to achieve his goal. The Telangana movement has always drawn its supporters from traditionally disadvantaged social groups and castes, who were later left behind in the race for development after India’s economic liberalisation. From these groups, KCR might have seen a way to build himself a base of voters.

In KCR, the movement gained a shrewd politician and a skilful orator. He has equal command over the nuances of the Telangana dialect and the scholarly theories of the experts he surrounds himself with. The economist Jayashankar, in particular, helped him frame a forceful argument for the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, backed with facts and figures about resource-sharing and job protection. But it was KCR who boiled that down to a simple, alliterative demand: neellu, nidhulu, niyamakalu—water, resources, and appointments.

In Telugu films, villains and comedians often speak the Telangana dialect. KCR shares the rough poetry of this guild. His language, which can be downright abusive, has been called unparliamentary, and his behaviour, uncouth. Transgression became a part of his signature style—perhaps a calculated strategy to garner media coverage in a state where the television news channels are almost entirely dominated by Seemandhra interests.

The media revelled in KCR’s quirks. “I don’t think any leader’s personal habits have been dissected as much as KCR’s,” his son, K Taraka Rama Rao, who is also an MLA, told me. Commentators and opponents criticise KCR’s habit of waking up late, and add fuel to the perception that he is a chronic alcoholic. In 2013, he categorically stated that he had quit drinking in an interview on the Telugu show Open Heart. To an extent, KCR appears not to mind the criticism, but of late, he has learned the value of occasionally correcting himself when chastened by an exacting media.

As the Telangana movement’s political face, KCR—who is a velama, an upper caste—has faced criticism for his lack of engagement with the complexities of caste in the region. When some of KCR’s critics asked Jayashankar, himself from a backward caste, why he supported a velama dora (velama lord), he said “Show me the alternative.” Perhaps to counter such criticism, KCR has often stressed his desire to install a Dalit chief minister in Telangana (sometimes backed up by his stated dream of having a Muslim deputy chief minister).

The precondition for that promise—the creation of Telangana—has now been fulfilled. But it seems unlikely  that KCR could resist trying to become the new state’s first chief minister himself. “After thirty years, we found a leader,” Jayashankar said, in a book of interviews compiled after his death. “Is he perfect? May be not. Perfection exists only in the dictionary.”

An excerpt from 'The Wedge,' published in The Caravan's April 2014 issue. Read the story in full here.

Praveen Donthi  is a staff writer at The Caravan.