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India's 29th state could lead to many more

The central government decides to give in to demands to create the state of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh after a hunger strike by a regional politician. Activists in other regions are piping up.

December 12, 2009|By Mark Magnier
  • Anti-Telangana and pro-Telangana advocates quarrel as police try to stop them on the premises of Andhra Pradesh High Court.
Anti-Telangana and pro-Telangana advocates quarrel as police try to stop… (EPA )

Reporting from New Delhi — The surprise announcement this week that India would create a new state has sparked what advocates of the status quo have long feared: a host of other regions clamoring for statehood.

The catalyst for the decision to create the new state of Telangana out of southern Andhra Pradesh state was an 11-day fast by a struggling regional politician who had vowed to starve himself to death if India didn't redraw the map.

The all but desperate move by K. Chandrasekhar Rao was meant to evoke the strategic fasts of the last century by Mohandas Gandhi, father of modern India, to protest British colonial oppression and contain religious violence.

Rao's fast quickly hit a chord, sparking clashes between authorities and college students and a general strike that crippled Hyderabad, the state capital and one of India's high-tech centers. Then in a surprise to almost everyone, probably even Rao, the ruling Congress Party in New Delhi acceded to his demand to create India's 29th state.

"The government panicked," said Kuldip Nayar, a political commentator. "Gandhi fasted for long periods and seldom threatened death, but this man was dramatizing with all this. Now people will think all you have to do is fast and you can get your own state."

On Friday, the Gorkha community, ethnic Nepalis, called for an indefinite strike in West Bengal state demanding a "Gorkhaland" to safeguard their heritage.

Activists in Bundelkhand quickly followed suit, threatening a 180-mile march to highlight their demands for their region. This is one of India's most backward areas, straddling the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

In Maharashtra, the western state that includes the business hub Mumbai, advocates demonstrated Friday for a new state for Vidarbha, another impoverished area.

And on it went, with similar calls from those in favor of a "Harit Pradesh" state carved out of western Uttar Pradesh, Rayalaseema state out of Andhra Pradesh as well as a proposed division into Upper and Lower Andhra Pradesh.

Since independence in 1947, India has walked a tightrope between central control and the drive for greater recognition by its diverse regions, castes, tribes and ethnic communities.

Statehood offers several benefits, including more direct funding from the capital, more high-prestige political and bureaucratic positions for bigwigs, recognition of local identity and an ability to steer economic policy more effectively.

After Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh were formed in the late 1960s and early '70s out of a much larger Punjab state, they prospered and now are among India's richest states.

The unexpected announcement that Telangana might soon be strutting its independent stuff after a nearly 40-year quest struck some analysts as less a result of a well-thought out policy than a desire to avoid political turmoil.

But the decision angered opponents of the idea. More than one-third of the lawmakers in the 294-member Andhra Pradesh state assembly resigned in protest Thursday and Friday. The resignations have not yet been formally accepted by the speaker.

The standoff then spilled into the streets Friday as thousands of people, both for an and against, marched across Andhra Pradesh, leading to the shutdown of businesses and public transportation.

Rao's regional Telangana Rashtra Samithi party, which had campaigned on the statehood demand during spring elections, was trounced at the polls and his career and the issue seemed dead.

The Telangana initiative may be part of a trend, observers said. In the first few decades after independence, Indian states were formed largely along linguistic lines, said Swapan Dasgupta, a political analyst. But with the creation of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand states in 2000 and now continuing with Telangana, the focus has shifted to a redrawing along economic lines.

"Sooner or later we could see a new round of state creation as power becomes more decentralized," Dasgupta said. "The socially explosive part, however, is if ethnicity or religion and backward economics combine."

Rao's success could embolden agitators, Dasgupta said. "You could see a sort of bargain basement statehood," he said. "It sounds a bit cruel, but they should have force-fed him a bit."

But statehood for Telangana is far from a done deal. Its creation would require the approval of the Andhra Pradesh assembly and India's Parliament. Moves to create states have been delayed for years amid political wrangling.

It is still unclear whether Hyderabad, home to the Indian headquarters of Microsoft and Google, would be part of the new state.

"This has opened a hornet's nest," said Nayar, the journalist. "At the same time, we must thank the nation's founders. While it may seem like the country is coming apart at the seams, at least no one is thinking about tanks on the street. That's a positive aspect."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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