Linguistic provinces

India’s leaders failed in not anticipating the problem, when they could solve it

Redrawing the boundaries of a province calls for a wise blend of respect for popular sentiment and national unity. Neither was evident in the establishment in February of the state of Telengana by breaking up the state of AP. The entire process was marked by lack of political skill and balance of popular sentiment with national concerns.

Telengana comprises the Telugu-speaking areas of the state of Hyderabad which were merged with the Telugu-speaking areas of the state of Madras. The messiness is of a piece with the entire process of redrawing provincial boundaries on a linguistic basis since Independence. There must be a consensus on the setting up of a new state, agreement on its boundaries, on the safeguards for the linguistic and other minorities, left inevitably in the divided states.

In 1920, the Congress formed its provincial committees on linguistic lines, rejecting existing provincial boundaries. Predictably the demand was renewed by politicians in the south.

On June 17, 1948, the Assembly set up a three-member Linguistic Provinces Commission. Its utterly undistinguished members gave the desired report — no linguistic provinces. To allay resentment the Congress set up its committee comprising Nehru, Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. It reported that while the moment was not “opportune” for redrawing the boundaries, “if public sentiment is overwhelming, we, as democrats have to submit to it but subject to certain limitations.”

It was application of “cold water therapy” all along. One wonders whether a decisive move towards forging a consensus by the tallest leaders at that time would not have been wiser.

In October 1952, Potti Sriramulu began a fast unto death, demanding the formation of Andhra Pradesh. He died after 58 days. This state was inaugurated on October 1, 1953. Nehru remarked to a colleague: “We have disturbed the hornet’s nest and I believe most of us are likely to be badly stung.”

The States Reorganisation Commission was set up soon thereafter, comprising persons of eminence. Its report satisfied none. It recommended, for instance, a bilingual state of Bombay, comprising Gujarat and Maharashtra which neither region accepted. It was a vain attempt to sidetrack the issue of Bombay, India’s financial capital, which Maharashtra wanted as its capital. Nehru toyed with the idea of a city state.

All of 1956 there were riots in Bombay and other places. The States Reorganisation Act, 1956, set up a bilingual state of Bombay and the new linguistic states of Kerala, Mysore (later Karnataka), Tamil Nadu and Punjab. Hyderabad was split into three, each part going to its linguistic neighbour. In 1960, Bombay was split into Maharashtra, with Bombay as its capital, and Gujarat.

In 1966, Punjab was split into Punjab and Hindi-speaking Haryana; in all cases electoral considerations held sway. The tribal areas of Bihar became the state of Jharkhand in 2002. In the same year, those of Madhya Pradesh became Chhatt-isgarh while the hill areas of Uttar Pradesh became Uttarakhand in 2000; all incontrovertible moves for sound reasons. But, also, all could have been anticipated years earlier.

In 1971, the Northeast was reorganised into Meghalaya (out of Assam), to keep company with Mizoram, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and, of course, Assam and Nagaland. However, Punjab was deprived of Chandigarh as its capital. As Union Territory, it is the capital of both Punjab and Haryana.

Meanwhile, something far worse than boundary disputes and minorities’ grievances has emerged. It is linguistic chauvinism. B.R. Ambedkar, a Maharashtrian, and K.M. Munshi, a Gujarati, differed bitterly on Bombay. But both warned against the growth of intolerant linguistic nationalism. Ambedkar warned: “It often happens that things do take a shape which their authors never intended.

There is no danger in creating linguistic provinces. Danger lies in creating linguistic provinces with the language of each province as its official language. The latter would lead to the creation of provincial nationalities.”

“A linguistic state with its regional language as its official language may easily develop into an independent nationality. The only way I can think of meeting the danger is to provide in the Constitution that the regional language shall not be the official language of the state. The official language of the state shall be Hindi and until India becomes fit for this purpose English.” India’s leaders failed in not anticipating the problem when they could have effectively resolved it.

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai

By arrangement with Dawn

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