Hunger strikes with opposite purposes
When Telangana Rashtra Samithi chief K. Chandrashekhara Rao walked out of the UPA and began his hunger strike at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on August 23, he was not the first Andhra leader to use this evocative tool to pursue an emotive cause. Nearly 54 years ago, on October 19, 1952, the legendary Potti Sreeramalu went on a fast — which ended with his death on December 15 the same year.
But there is a key difference. Potti Sreeramalu’s hunger strike was to press for integrating all Telugu-speaking people into a single state; Rao’s protest is aimed at overturning that achievement and carving out a separate Telangana. The tale of these two fasts — their contrasting goals and conflicting imperatives — tells us more than contemporary Congress or TRS accounts can tell us why the Telengana issue is a lot more complex than the granting of statehood to, say, Uttarakhand or Chhattisgarh. And also why it will continue to haunt the polity even if the exit of the TRS may not affect the stability of the UPA right now.
Potti Sreeramalu’s fast unto death was historic in more ways than one. It not only led to the formation of the first state in India on a purely linguistic basis, but also paved the way for the first States Reorganisation Committee (SRC). Having freshly emerged from the anti-imperialist struggle — both against the Raj and the Nizam — many Congressmen and most communists at the time fought for the linguistic reorganisation of states. They implicitly believed, to quote Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, that “language is the root of all identity; to tamper with that is either poetry or treason”. A common tongue, it was felt, imbued a hitherto colonised people with a sense of solidarity and empowerment. And popular struggles revolving around this priniciple quickly gained ground through the early fifties. As a result, the administrative units under the British Raj as well as the erstwhile princely states were divided and amalgamated on the basis of language and the new states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and others were born.
Andhra played a pioneering role. In 1947 the Telugu speaking people were distributed in 21 districts — nine of them were part of the Nizam’s Hyderabad state and the remaining 12 fell under the Madras Presidency. A powerful movement — championed by Congressmen like Sreeramalu as well as the communists who had been in the forefront of the Telengana armed struggle — soon began for ‘Vishalandhra’ or a separate Telugu-speaking state.
Within days of Potti Sreeramalu’s martyrdom, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru bowed to the demand and the first Andhra state comprising the Telugu-speaking areas of Madras Presidency came into being on October 1, 1953. The victorious Telugus then demanded that Madras — historically a part of the Andhra region — be made the capital. A three-member committee comprising Jawaharlal Nehru, Pattabhi Sitaramayya and C. Rajagopalachari rejected the demand, firmly decreeing that the “Telugu people should leave Madras for Tamils if they want a new state”.
That loss was partially made up three years later when the districts of Hyderabad state were integrated to form the current state of Andhra Pradesh on November 1, 1956 — and Hyderabad was declared the new capital.
The bitter opposition to a separate Telengana shared by the CPI(M), Telugu Desam and large sections of the Congress is rooted in this historical legacy. Language is not the only reason. Hyderabad too is important. “Can you imagine Maharashtra without Mumbai? How can there be an Andhra Pradesh without Hyderabad?” is a familiar refrain.
For the people of Telegana, on the other hand, linguistic identity and cultural affinity of the Telugu people no longer evoke much resonance. The Telegana region has remained under-developed even half a century after the formation of the new state. Although the two great rivers of Godavari and Krishna flow through Telengana, lack of irrigation remains central to their woes.
In contrast, Telenganites bitterly complain, coastal Andhra has not only prospered but the coastal rich have also taken over the boomtown of Hyderabad. The backwardness of Telengana, they feel, fuels the Naxalite movement. It also spawned a separatist movement led by Congress leader M. Chenna Reddy back in 1969. That petered out after Mrs Gandhi managed to co-opt Reddy who later served two stints as chief minister of the state. For
Telengana separatists, Reddy is regarded as the archetypal “betrayer” to this day.
Taunted by his own supporters that the TRS was going the Reddy way — and his separatist support base eroding by the day, K.Chandrashekhara Rao had little choice but to quit the UPA government. Since his party is confined to the Telengana region, it was not such a difficult decision to take.
But for political parties like the TDP, Congress or Left which are spread throughout the state, the issue is far more complex. The under-development of Telengana cannot be wished away. But the break-up of the first linguistic state in India’s post-Independence history can be emotionally and politically wrenching.
The problem is not confined to Andhra Pradesh alone. The demand for a separate Vidarbha has been around for a long time now. A nascent separatist movement in the Coorg (or Kodagu) region of Karnataka has also begun. Tomorrow, who knows, it could the turn of Malabar or Kutch. The NDA government’s decision to form Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — all carved out of Hindi-speaking north India which did not witness the “language question” — was a lot simpler in a way. Besides, wedded as it is to the concept of a homogeneous “one people, one nation, one culture” ideal, the Sangh Parivar has never been a proponent of linguistic states.
Telengana, thus, raises more fundamental questions. Has language as the root of identity, as the basis of cultural solidarity ceased to matter? Have the intangible affinities that informed popular struggles in the aftermath of Independence been overtaken by the all-consuming desire for a more tangible “development”? Are the two mutually exclusive or can they go hand in hand? At the moment, at least, there are no clear answers.