Sunday, September 16, 2007

Telugu or Telangana

Pachchipulusu khayenge, Telangana leyengey! (We will survive on tamarind soup, but secure a separate Telangana.)

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I have mouthed that slogan too. In 1970. On the streets of Himayatnagar and Narayanaguda in the heart of strife-torn Hyderabad. I was a true-blue “mulki”, son-of-the-soil, though my ancestors came from the other side of the Godavari to make the Deccan their home. The slogan drew attention to the fact that while coastal Andhra may have been the rice bowl of the state and Teangana was condemned to dryland farming, the backward region’s politically short-changed Telugus were willing to subsist on tamarind soup, the pride of dakhni cuisine, and secure their self-respect.

It all seems so long ago. Three decades later, the slogans are less evocative and life goes on in a busy Hyderabad unmindful of the revived sentiment in some of the surrounding districts. But the issue is back on the state’s political agenda. The demand for a separate state of Telangana lies at the heart of the ongoing election campaign in Andhra Pradesh. The response of the people across the state to this regional sentiment will determine the political future of one of India’s rising political leaders, Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister, Nara Chandrababu Naidu.

Does language still unite the people of India’s first linguistic state or has dialect come to divide them once again? It is easy to jump to the conclusion that economic backwardness continues to lie at the core of the sentiment for a separate state. This is not entirely correct. There is no doubt that many parts of Telangana remain economically backward, largely on account of low literacy and lack of access to water. However, prosperity has come to large parts of the region and the growth of Hyderabad is trickling along the Bangalore, Mumbai and Vijayawada roads for miles on an end. But till the waters of the Krishna, the Godavari and the Tungabhadra are harnessed for the region, the farmer’s grievance will remain. A common language doesn’t soothe dry tongues and thirsty throats.

The demand for a separate state is not constructed on the farmer’s grievance alone. As in 1969-70, so in 2003-04, the authors of the demand come more from the educated middle classes in the towns of Warangal and Karimnagar who see in a new state new opportunities and more political power. They build their political nest with the leaves of cultural grievance and the roots of economic backwardness.

Anyone familiar with the recent genre of Telugu cinema will understand the nature of the cultural grievance. The “hero” and “heroine” in Telugu cinema speak a Telugu closer to the dialect of the coastal region, while Telangana Telugu, with its mixture of dakhni, is reserved for the movie’s comedian or villain. The comedian and the villain now want to be the hero in this part of Telugu Desam!

Telangana is not like Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh, nor even like Haryana. Apart from the language it shares with the rest of Andhra Pradesh, it is today more integrated economically into the state as a whole. Hyderabad is a truly pan-Telugu metropolis that has come to accept the mix of Telangana’s dakhni culture and the coastal region’s Andhra culture. Economically, the business development of the greater Hyderabad region has made the city integral to the state. But Hyderabad is no Chandigarh for it lies in the heart of Telangana. In this lies the administrative difficulty of bifurcating the state. Indeed, of trifurcating it.

For, if Telangana comes, can dry and drought-prone Rayalaseema stay far behind in voicing its thirst? Moreover, a land-locked Telangana cannot take off in the manner Haryana did, with the latter’s access to New Delhi, and will be dependent on “outside” investors for a long time for its prosperity.

The economic case for Telangana is weak. The political case is weaker still. In a peninsular neighbourhood where Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Marathi have their own states, will the Telugus benefit from division? When N.T. Rama Rao launched his Telugu Desam Party, he consciously sought to rekindle the pride in the language that united the Telugus. It is a platform that Naidu today occupies. Caught between the pan-Teluguism of the TDP and the regional chauvinism of the Telangana separatists, the Congress and the BJP have fudged the issue.

The Congress remains a divided house on Telangana, as indeed it has been on Vidarbha. The BJP was united in favour of Telangana because the region’s anti-Nizam struggles of the past favoured its Hindutva plank. Hyderabad’s Marwari business community also encouraged this thinking, having yielded market space to coastal Andhra’s business castes. Today, even the BJP is ambivalent, caught between the aspirations of its communal old guard and its business savvy new recruits who favour a united state.

For this very reason the region’s Muslim community had opposed the demand for a separate Telangana in 1969, feeling more confident about the secular credentials of coastal Andhra’s upper castes. Even now they prefer Naidu’s secularism, but the new found prosperity of Hyderabad’s Muslims may encourage them to rethink their political relevance in a smaller state.

Clearly Naidu is guilty of an error of judgement in dealing with the Telangana demand. Even at this stage he can retrieve lost ground by recognising the social and economic basis of the sense of discrimination the region nurses and revive the idea of a Regional Development Committee, with a development budget. He must share power with panchayati raj institutions at the district level and develop the region’s irrigation potential.

There are today many like me who once supported the demand for a separate Telangana but no longer see sense in it. Andhra Pradesh has struggled for too long to leap out of the category of states below the “national average” to those above. It has waited at the threshold for four long decades and is now poised to make that leap. It can if it stays united. Time for the Telugus to stand up and be counted!

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