Saturday, November 17, 2007

Language-Based States (Guha Chapter 9)

[Part of an ongoing series on Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Last week's entry can be found here. Next week, we will look at Chapter 10, "The Conquest of Nature," on India's approach to development and the modernization of agriculture.]

Guha's Chapter 9, "Redrawing the Map," is about the early phase in the movement to establish language-based states, with particular emphasis on the south (the creation of Andhra Pradesh out of what was formerly the state of Madras), the status of Bombay vis a vis Maharashtra, and the delineation of Punjab.

As Guha points out, though reorganizing states according to language was part of the Congress plank from the 1930s, after Independence/Partition, both Nehru and Sardar Patel were strongly opposed to rushing into any reorganization of states, especially if there was a danger that such reorganizations could lead to the destabilization of the union. The logic behind this hesitation was understandable and quite sound: if the idea of "India" could be broken along the lines of religion, why not also language?

The first new state to be created along the lines of language was Andhra Pradesh, and this was largely due to the hunger strike of Gandhian activist and Telugu leader Potti Sriramulu, who is another one of those great, largely forgotten (well, forgotten outside of Andhra Pradesh at least) "characters" from post-independence Indian history who probably should be better known than he is:

Sriramulu was born in Madras in 1901, and studied sanitary engineering before taking a job with the railroads. In 1928 he suffered a double tragedy, when his wife died along with their newborn child. Two years later he resigned his position to join the Salt Satyagraha. Later, he spent some time at Gandhi's Sabarmati ashram. Later still, he spent eighteen months in jail as part of the individual Satyagraha campaign of 1940-41. . . .

Gandhi did regard Sriramulu with affection but also, it must be said, with a certain exasperation. On 25 November 1946 the disciple had beugn a fast unto death to demand the opening of all temples in Madras province to untouchables. Other congressmen, their minds more focused on the impending freedom of India, urged him to desist. . . .

Potti Sriramulu had called off that fast of 1946 at Gandhi's insistence. But in 1952 he Mahatma was dead; and in any case, Andhra meant more to Sriramulu than the untouchables once had. This fast he would carry out till the end, or until the government of India relented.

Potti Sriramulu died of his hunger strike on December 15, 1952. Three days later, Nehru announced that the formation of the state of Andhra out of the eleven Telugu-speaking districts of Madras.

Of course, with Andhra the reorganization was just beginning. Three years later, the national States Reorganization Committee announced a number of other changes. In the south, the job was easy, as there were four clear language regions (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam) that could be allocated their own states.

In Bombay, the situation was more complicated, as the Marathi-speakers in Bombay comprised a plurality (43%) but not a majority of the city's residents as of 1955. Moreover, the economically dominant ethnic communities of Bombay -- especially Gujaratis -- strongly resisted the idea of making Bombay part of a Marathi-speaking state. However, following growing unrest and a series of "language riots" (memorably described in Rushdie's Midnight's Children), this merger eventually did happen in 1960, as Bombay was declared the capital of the new state of Maharashtra. (Suketu Mehta's book, Maximum City, has a lot more on how language and ethnicity politics have evolved in Bombay over the years -- warts and all.)

This Guha chapter doesn't detail how things would play out later in Punjab, where the Sikhs' early demand for a Punjabi-language state was denied by the States Reorganization Committee in 1955. (Sikhs have always anecdotally blamed this failure on the census of 1951, where Punjabi-speaking Hindus by and large described their primary language as "Hindi," confusing matters greatly.) When reorganization eventually did occur in Punjab in 1966, it caused lots of other problems, some of which would lead to a resurgent Akali movement, and eventually to the rise of Sikh separatism in the 1970s.

Partly as a result of what happened in Punjab (and we'll get to that in a few chapters), Guha's rather easy acceptance the language reorganization movements seems a bit glib to me:

When it began, the movement for linguistic states generated deep apprehensions among the nationalist elite. They feared it would lead to the balkanization of India, to the creation of many more Pakistans. 'Any attempt at redrawing the map of India on the linguistic basis,' wrote the Times of India in February 1952, 'would only give the long awaited opportunity to the reactionary forces to come into the open and assert themselves. That will lay an axe to the very root of India's integrity.'

In retrospect, however, linguistic reorganization seems rather to have consolidated the unity of India. True, the artifacts that have resulted, such as Bangalore's Vidhan Souda, are not to everybody's taste. And there have been some serious conflicts between states over the sharing of river waters. However, on the whole the creation of linguistic states has acted as a largely constructive channel for provincial pride. It has proved quite feasible to be peaceably Kannadiga, or Tamil, or Oriya--as well as contentedly Indian. (207-208)

Guha's premise that language-based politics works somewhat differently from the politics of religious communalism seems right to me. The latter seems inevitably divisive (and almost always destructive), while the former seems to have had several positive benefits (especially as it has led to support for regional literatures and the arts). And it's also clear that the reorganization along linguistic lines didn't lead to what was feared, "the creation of many more Pakistans."

But isn't it still true that the language-based politics that led to the creation of new states starting in the 1950s has also led state governments to certain excesses along linguistic/ethnic lines? Two such excesses might include the renaming of Bombay as 'Mumbai', and the recent renaming of Bangalore as 'Bengluru'. I'm also concerned about the language-based "reservations" that exist in some states, favoring the dominant ethno-linguistic community over other ethnic groups (though I admit I am not a specialist on this latter issue). Now that the states have been permanently established, is the perpetuation of language-based politics really that benign?

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Ruchira Paul said...

I am ambivalent about the regional division in India along linguistic lines. It may have been the easiest and even the most logical solution but if indeed it was the wisest or the one with the best foresight for the future of India, I am not sure.

Unlike most other parts of India, Delhi, where I grew up was relatively free of mono-linguistic pressures even though Hindi was the language of most Delhi-ites outside their homes. Also, it created a truly (and perhaps the only) multi-cultural, ployglot region in India where Indians of all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds could go around their business more or less unmolested.

I believe that if India had been divided, say including 3 or more linguistic groups in each region from states now bordering each other without a clear majority afforded to one group, it would have contributed to a greater sense of Indianness through socialization in the work place, universities, businesses and on the street. (Then again, the math may have been more complicated than I think.) As for maintaining and nurturing one's own language, literature and culture, people probably would have come up with the kind of solutions that Delhi-ites from different parts of India had done in my youth. I had described this phenomenon in a comment on my blog some time ago and I believe you had linked to it during a similar discussion on diversity.

The more I follow this book review, the more I am convinced that I have to read Guha's book, no matter how daunting the size.

4:39 PM  
apu said...

division into linguistic states has not really led to severe conflicts, in most cases, I would say. There is stiff enough movement between states for people to not see those from other states as alien. But, state governments do indulge in unnecessary parochialism. Bangalore for e.g., refuses to allow lettering on city buses, in either English or Hindi. This shuts out a large portion of the city from ever using public transport.

11:11 PM  
Narayan said...

People living in the Bombay suburbs of the 60s were relatively isolated from troubles that erupted in the "ethnic" quarters of the city. We heard of riots and morchas in localities that we only experienced out of the windows of the suburban trains. In 1966 the linguistic reorganization of states boiled over on the border with Karnataka with the bombing of the railway line between Poona and Bangalore. I had just graduated and had to go to Bangalore for an interview. At the time one had to go to Poona on the broad gauge line and then change to the metre gauge line. This was an adventure I couldn't miss, so off I went, ignoring the dire warnings of relations. At Poona I was one of some twenty odd people who boarded the Bangalore train. For the rest of the trip everyone was best friends. We got off at every station to change compartments and make new acquaintances, share food and chai. I am sure we all relished the novel experience of roooom on a train. Happily we got there in one piece and back too.
Does Guha document any such violence?

4:14 PM  
vkrishna said...

I think what apu said is more problematic (and things like political and union pressure on movie theatres in Bangalore to show Kannada movies to the detriment of other language cinema.). The renaming is not a big issue, especially since both bangalore (definitely) and mumbai now have names that are most commonly used by locals. The communal/religious issue is far more dangerous and divisive as you correctly point out.

4:36 PM  
Sacre Vache said...

The denial of Punjabi as their mother tongue by urban Hindus in the Punjab goes back far beyond the 1951 census. The Arya Samaj was instigating the urban Punjabi Hindus to declare Hindi as their mother tongue way back with the 1891 census onwards. The role of Lala Lajpat Rai (and the Arya Samaj )in this cultural deracination of Punjabi Hindus is one of the lesser known aspects of his life. Lajpat Rai is mostly remembered as a freedom fighter, his betrayal of the Punjabi language is largely papered over. I had first hand experience of this linguistic conflict at an Arya Samaji school (D.A.V. School) I attended at Chandigarh, where come census time, the headmaster urged all to declare Hindi as their mother tongue!

11:13 PM  
vkrishna said...

Language based politics can get ugly very fast, as is evident from riots stemming from water sharing disputes centered around the Cauvery river system. This was a while back (~15 years) but there were some particularly nasty riots in Bangalore over this issue, where Tamilians and tamil speakers were specifically targeted. Many of them were poor (e.g autodrivers and the like), but wealthier ones who lived in some pretty tony localities were not spared.

In Bangalore at least, there used to be a persistent undercurrent of linguistic chauvinism, with movie theater owners often becoming targets for not showing enough Kannada movies. I dont know whether this is still the case in Bangalore though. The renaming of the city is however not such a major issue, since the new name aligns better with what locals call it (and is also the correct pre-british one) than the old anglicized name.

5:01 PM  
Mahesh said...

"is the perpetuation of language-based politics really that benign?"


as if there werent enough divisions in india before we introduced language-based divisions.

7:41 PM  

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