Is India threatened with Balkanization?

by N.V.K. Murthy

The demand for Telangana as a separate state that has come up again seems to have created quite a problem for the ruling party, the Congress. The opposition parties are leaving no stone unturned to use this opportunity to weaken the Congress. Is this really a political crisis?

To answer this question one has to look at the present demand for Telangana state in a historical perspective. This is not the first time that such a demand has come up. The second point is that there have been demands for separate states in different parts of the country. Some states like Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, and Chhattisgarh have been formed already. There are two ways one can react to the demand of Telangana. One is to portray it as a potential danger to the unity and strength of the country. The other is to treat it as much as an opportunity as a challenge. Telangana could then be used as a case study for the larger problem facing the country. When India achieved freedom in August 1947, the country consisted of dissimilar units. Some were earlier ruled by kings while others were directly administered by the colonial power, England. These units were a mixture of ethnic and linguistic groups. The state’s re-organization commission was an attempt to rationalize these units. This to a large extent met the linguistic and cultural aspirations of the people.

Then came a question of economic aspirations. Throughout the tenure of the first Prime-Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the emphasis was on increasing the size of the cake of economic development before turning one’s attention to its distribution. People assumed that once the size of the cake was increased, the size of the various portions cut out of the cake would also increase, and hence meet their needs. But this did not happen.

In this article, one need not go into the details of the economic policy and the administrative machinery that was set up to execute this policy. Suffice it to say that there were several pockets of under-development in the country which gave rise to separatist movements. This was observed even twenty years after freedom was achieved. In fact one of the four special films made for the Gandhi birth centenary celebrations, entitled “Quest for a Nation”, specifically addressed this problem of separatist movements in different parts of the country. It is important to recognize that as long as a sense of neglect persists in a region, one cannot fight the sense of alienation. So the first lesson to draw is not to brush away the demand for a separate state simply citing it as a potential danger to the unity and strength of the country. What is perhaps called for is a public transparent debate by the civic society on all the aspects involved in this and other similar demands. It is a well-known saying that the remedy for the ills of democracy is more democracy, not less. Here the federal nature of the Indian constitution has an important role to play. Critics of the constitution of India have said that it is federal only in name but unitary in substance. The prophets of doom have expressed fears that any loosening of the unitary powers in the constitution would be detrimental to the strength of the country. This point of view needs to be debated more fully by the civic society.

One should also take into consideration what has been happening in Europe in this context. We find that after centuries of fighting between ethnic and linguistic groups in Europe, these very units are now coming together in one union because they realize the advantages of size and economic co-operation. Perhaps this experience would provide a lesson to the people of India to tackle the problems of alienation which have surfaced in several parts of the country. In any case it is necessary to emphasize that adhoc decisions will not help. Whatever decisions are taken should be in a wider context and in the light of the experience not only in India but elsewhere in the world.

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