The Indian government may have got more than it bargained for when last week it agreed to the demands of the Telugu-speaking people in Andhra Pradesh to have their own state. The decision has resulted in a spate of calls from communities across the country looking to split from the states they were merged into after India gained independence.
The Telugu speakers have been agitating for autonomy since their region was bolted onto Andhra in the 1950s to create Andhra Pradesh. The issue came to a head last week when the central government in New Delhi caved in to hunger-striking political leader K Chandrashekar Rao and set in motion the process of creating a Telangana state.
It was a decision that sparked similar calls from other separatist movements across the country. Emboldened by the Telangana development, many are now agitating for their own cases. On the Nepalese border, the semi-autonomous Gorkhaland region was shut down on Monday as a series of strikes, centred on the hill station of Darjeeling, called attention to the region’s long-held push for statehood. The Gorkhas – ethnic Nepalis – see themselves as distinct from the West Bengal state they were tacked onto.
The situation is causing angst in some parts of the country, with fears that India – a country of more than 1 billion people with a multitude of ethnicities and complex identities – could “Balkanise” into a mess of unmanageable and unsustainable mini-states.
More than 50 politicians in Andhra Pradesh quit in protest over the Telangana decision and some commentators are seeing it as a sign of weakness from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The daily Mint newspaper warned that, “If the trend gains momentum, ever greater shares of gross domestic product will be spent in propping states that can’t sustain themselves. Precious little will be left for investment.”
With renewed calls for separation over the past week from groups in Vidarbha in Maharashtra, Bodoland in Assam and Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the trend appears to be gaining momentum. The country’s finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, was sent out at the weekend to soothe nerves and spread the message that New Delhi’s decision to grant statehood to Telangana “does not mean that everywhere new states are to be created”.
He may just be right. The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly in the world’s largest democracy and nothing happens without a great deal of consultation and consideration.
Indeed, historian and long-term New Delhi resident, William Dalrymple, says India’s democracy – and its economic success – are likely to save it. “All the separatist movements have waned, and the reason they’ve waned is the democratic nature of India means that protest is allowed to be non-violent,” he says.
“India has managed to make it worthwhile to be part of India. I’m a Scot and the Scots united with England in the 18th century because England was going places. “I think while India continues its extraordinary rise and there’s enough at stake to make people want to be Indian, the whole thing is controllable,” he says. Many in New Delhi will hope he is right.