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The Rise of Telangana

A high-voltage political battle has broken out on the Telangana statehood issue in Andhra Pradesh in the run-up to the 2014 general elections. M.R. Venkatesh and Saptarshi Bhattacharya of The Hindu Centre offer a detailed focus on the ground realities in Andhra Pradesh, examining the various strands of this highly complex and emotion-charged issue.

On a Monsoon-drenched morning, driving down the Tank bund road overlooking the huge and famous Husain Sagar Lake, the chill winds that mildly skimmed its waters gurgling as an irregular current around Buddha’s statue, instantly transported one to Chennai’s Marina beach.

For, the row of some 30-odd finely chiselled statues of mostly Telugu cultural icons and a few others who have contributed to their socio-cultural enrichment adorning one part of the necklace-like road formation, shared a disarmingly similar political sub-text scripted by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu erecting similar statues of Tamil cultural icons along the Marina sands in the run-up to the 1968 World Tamil Conference, barely a year after the DMK had stormed to power in Tamil Nadu.

The statues here – ranging from the ‘Himmat’ lady Rudramma Devi, Mehboob Ali Khan, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Alluri Seetharama Raju, Sir Arthur Cotton, saint-poet Thyagaraja, poet Sri Sri, Sultan Abul Hassan Tana Shah, Kandukuri Veerasalingam Pantulu to Siddhendra Yogi – were erected during the Telugu Desam Party (TDP)’s founder-leader N. T. Rama Rao’s Chief Ministerial tenure in Andhra Pradesh in the mid-1980s.

If they are seen as subtly showcasing regional Telugu pride, also a key political plank of the late actor-turned-politician, a disturbing turn about 25 years later was unmistakable: those very stone-carved human representations became the protestors’ targets in 2010 at the ugly height of another renewed agitation for creation of a ‘separate Telangana’.

Frustrated over the Central government delaying a decision on the statehood issue, which has now again become a political hot potato in the run-up to the Lok Sabha and possibly simultaneous Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh in 2014 – the last Assembly poll in the State was held in May 2009 – the pro-Telangana agitators had even uprooted some of those statues and hurled them into the Hussain Sagar to reject what they term the ‘hegemony’ of the political class of ‘Seemandhra (coastal Andhra plus Rayalaseema areas)’ over ‘Telangana’ region, the heart of erstwhile Hyderabad State till it merged with Andhra State to form united Andhra Pradesh in November, 1956.

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Ground Zero in flux

The iconic Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy is no more but political circles in this historic cosmopolitan capital city of Hyderabad are unanimous that his tragic death in a helicopter crash in early September 2009 marked a decisive turn in the course of the Telangana row. This fact quietly stands out amidst the utter state of flux that marks ground zero here, amid heightened expectations that the Congress Working Committee could take a final call on the issue in the coming week or so.

Irrespective of whatever decision that unfolds, Telangana has already become the core election issue – even as indicated by the CNN-IBN-The Hindu-Election Tracker Survey 2013, conducted by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), dramatically raising the stakes for all political parties across the State.

In what seems a repeat of the 2009 political turmoil, at the time of writing this report, 16 MLAs of the breakaway YSR Congress – who have rallied around his jailed son Jaganmohan Reddy – from ‘Seemandhra’ region who are opposing any unilateral decision by the Congress high command on the Telangana issue, and one senior Congress MLA, G. Veerasaiva Reddy, have already faxed their resignations to the Speaker, in an expression of solidarity for a united AP.

The myth of Sisyphus may be a tactical part of the political narrative here, as the often bitter, face-off between Telangana and Seemandhra area representatives intensify, to put pressure on the Central government either to take a decision or to put it off. But this time around, when they watch the boulder roll down the hill again as in that Greek myth, fresh by-elections may become redundant as the 2014 general elections are not far away.

It is thus a Catch-22 situation that haunts the Congress at the Centre – first having made a commitment in Parliament with the then Home Minister P.Chidambaram’s dramatic late night announcement of December 9, 2009, that the Centre would initiate the process of forming the State of Telangana, and then just a fortnight later, opting for ‘wide-ranging consultations’ as violence in AP escalated, making it impossible for the Assembly to adopt a resolution on Telangana.

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The TRS factor

While Mr. Chidambaram’s statement led to K. Chandrasekhar Rao, founder-leader of the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS), which is spearheading the pro-Telangana agitation for the last 12 years, then giving up his 11-day-old fast-unto-death, Andhra Pradesh plunged into a deeper political crisis. Despite the party’s flip-flops on the choice of allies – the TRS joined hands with the Congress in the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha polls but switched sides in 2009 to ally with the TDP after quitting the UPA-I Cabinet – this regional party which is now expected to even merge with the Congress should a new Telangana State materialise, has been able to maintain that momentum in that region fighting for statehood.

No wonder the TRS banners here are getting bigger and bolder, also projecting the TRS chief’s son, the suave management graduate, K. T. Rama Rao, who is now almost certain that the “Time for the T-State has come” and that the Telangana State will fall like a ripe apple on their laps ( see box for The Hindu Centre’s interview with Rama Rao in Hyderabad). However, in the latest ongoing Panchayat polls in the State, the TRS has not done as well in its Telangana bastion as was expected.

All woo Hyderabad

The uncertainty plaguing Andhra Pradesh in the last three years in particular, which has dampened foreign investments coming into the high-tech city of Hyderabad, a dream of the former Chief Minister and TDP leader N. Chandrababu Naidu who is seen as AP’s ‘famous CEO’- is something that everyone wants to put an end to.

In fact, the TDP rule, first under NTR and later under Naidu, as exhaustively documented by the Justice B. N. Srikrishna-headed Committee “to examine the situation in Andhra Pradesh with reference to the demand for a separate State of Telangana, as well as maintaining the present status of a united Andhra Pradesh” and to recommend a plan of action and road-map on how to move forward on this vexed and highly complex issue, had substantially transformed the “landscape of Hyderabad”. Later, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy sought to build on it.

Not only is the present ‘Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA), covering a total area of 7,073 sq km and with a population of over 7 million, almost twice the size of Goa and even bigger than the National Capital Territory of Delhi, it also hosts several ‘strategic’ government establishments. Of these, 28 are related to national defence or strategic establishments, says the Committee report, adding, the structure of Hyderabad’s GDP “differs radically from the other regions”, marking out its economic development as different from the rest of Andhra Pradesh. Hence, neither Telangana nor Seemandhra people wish to lose Hyderabad.

The glitz and lights in Hyderabad’s shopping malls, multiplexes, restaurants, gems and jewellery shops may be returning, albeit slowly. The likes of the ‘Kakatiya mess’ – Andhra is famous for its messes with hot spicy vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals – in the city are daily milling with hundreds, largely youth, even as the fashionable restaurants flaunt their variety; “Biryani, Kebab, Indian, Chinese – great take-away from the ‘House of Perfect Food’.

But the Telangana issue yields no such straight take-aways. A brief look-back at its history shows it to be staggeringly multi-layered, enmeshed by historical, linguistic, cultural, natural resources – employment, administrative and political factors. So much so, the Srikrishna panel gave as many as six options that could help resolve this long-pending demand from 1945 in a way, since the Communists-backed peasants struggle against the ‘Zamindari’ rule and landlordism in Telangana region. The later Naxal movement in Andhra Pradesh had partly its genesis in this anti-Zamindari struggle, notes the report.

A long legacy of tussle

In a long legacy of tussle that goes back to the yearnings of the Telugu-speaking people in the erstwhile Madras Presidency wanting to have a state of their own to ensure their cultural and linguistic moorings, the Andhra State was first formed in October 1953, thanks to a fast-unto-death in old Madras, now Chennai, by Potti Sriramulu. Its Legislative Assembly then functioned from Kurnool, while the Andhra High Court was located in Guntur.

The pages of earlier history from the Nizam-ruled Hyderabad State becoming part of the Indian Union in September 1948 were to soon catch up with Andhra’s destiny, even as the latter’s formation triggered demands for creation of other linguistic States.

It led to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reluctantly setting up the first ‘States Reorganisation Commission (SRC)’ under Justice S. Fazal Ali. And one of its outcomes was the birth of the present State of Andhra Pradesh, merging the Telugu-speaking ‘residuary part of erstwhile Hyderabad State’ with the then Andhra State, to make AP.

The hope then was that ‘Telangana’ would benefit by ‘Vishalandhra’ s development’. The merger was effected under what was termed a ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ that provided specific safeguards for the Telangana area including a Regional Council, which will protect its economic, cultural and political space that stemmed from the long legacy of Nizam rule in Hyderabad where Urdu was the official language. Coastal Andhra, on the contrary, under British rule in the Madras Presidency, had an edge with its English education.

However, as a new political structure was created in Andhra Pradesh, it was soon strained by internal regional Congress politics. In due course, nothing of the Gentlemen’s Agreement was kept, “a major sore point for the Telangana people,” which eventually led to their first major agitation in 1969. Even specific rules that required certain categories of employment in the Telangana area to be filled up only by residents of Telangana were not implemented.

Twists and turns in subsequent years

Mrs. Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister had a six-point formula replacing the earlier agreement and set up a separate ‘Planning and Development Board’ for each of the three regions of the State to ensure a United AP. This only reinforced the Telangana people’s apprehensions that they were ‘colonised’ by the better educated and politically savvy dominant castes from the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions.

That fear persists even now, despite long spells of lull in the Movement since 1992, until rather strangely, the BJP sought to take up its cause with its ‘Warrangal resolution’ in 1997.

In fact, the Srikrishna Committee’s report is a near-encyclopaedic analysis of all these factors till the latest phase of the Telangana agitation under the TRS banner since 2001. Interestingly, that was the time when the BJP-led NDA at the Centre under A.B. Vajpayee’s leadership unwittingly gave this movement an extra fillip by carving out three new States of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, from the bigger States Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar respectively premised on ‘smaller states ensure better inclusive development’.

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Justice Srikrishna’s six-fold path

After all its painstaking work, the Srikrishna Committee plumped for its sixth option. “On balance, it found the most workable option in the given circumstances, in the interests of the social and economic welfare of people of all the three regions” in the Panel’s sixth option that the State be kept united by simultaneously providing definite Constitutional measures for “socio-economic development and political empowerment of Telangana region”. This it emphasised, was different from merely maintaining the present status quo.

Though the “demand for separate Telangana has some merit,” the Committee categorically said to split the State only if it is “unavoidable and if the decision can be reached amicably amongst all the three regions”. In that eventuality, Hyderabad will continue to be a joint capital, “until a new capital for Seemandhra is created,” the panel said, ranking it as its second best option. The panel’s other four options included bifurcating the State into ‘Rayala-Telangana’ (merging four districts of backward Rayalaseema with the Telangana districts and Hyderabad being part of it) and ‘coastal Andhra’, and bifurcation with making an enlarged Hyderabad metropolis as a Union Territory, housing the capitals of both the divided units a la Chandigarh.

Alternatively, the State could be bifurcated with ‘Telangana’ and ‘Seemandhra’ having their own capitals and Hyderabad retained as a Union Territory, the Committee said. However, to maintain status quo – the panel’s ‘least favoured’ option – will only deepen the political crisis on both sides of the divide and could make the Telangana agitation even more emotional with the Maoist-extremist elements already joining hands with the TRS, it warned, adding, “some intervention is definitely required”.

It is to this last caveat that all the pro-Telangana activists and parties are now latching on. “The Centre at this point of time is quite serious to take a decision on Telangana,” feels the veteran Professor of Politics at Osmania University, Prof. Kothandaram, who heads the non-political Joint Action Committee (JAC) of the Telangana Movement. “Until the Bill (to create Telangana State) comes to Parliament, we keep our fingers crossed as they (Centre) may still yield to coastal Andhra’s powerful business lobbies and go back yet again,” he said.

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Voices for and against Telangana

Nonetheless, in this phase of the agitation, “nearly 1,000 boys and girls have committed suicide,” Kothandaram said, adding, “after such long years of bitter struggle and humiliation, the people of Telangana feel separation and nothing else”. Refuting critics that Maoists activities will escalate if Telangana was given, as it would then become a haven for extremists from its border with Chhattisgarh, he said the Telangana Movement and the Maoists have “different social bases.” In fact, land reforms in Telangana may partly address the Maoists problems, he contended, adding, “this uncertainty is very bad”.

Things are not that simple, avers the CPI(M)’s State Secretary, B.V. Raghavalu, pointing out that dividing a State does not necessarily address the issues of under-development and socio-economic backwardness. In fact, “some of the most backward districts in Andhra Pradesh are the North coastal areas and Rayalaseema,” he said. “The division will harm federalism, secularism and dilution of democratic institutions,” he warned. The Marxist’s parent party, CPI, though, is for a separate Telangana for historical reasons, as all earlier agreements to empower that region have “failed”.

Significantly, the ‘Rayala-Telangana’ proposal has been shot down by all the political parties and even the Movement’s leaders. “Merging four districts of Rayalaseema with Telangana will be artificial, as the dominant caste from the former wield enormous political clout; we are only asking for a demerger; restore the old State of Hyderabad with the geographical area of Telangana,” argued K. Narayana, State Secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI). At the other end, “we are firmly for a United Andhra”, asserts Dr. S. Shailajanath, senior Minister in the Kiran Kumar Reddy-led Congress government. ( See box for an interview with the Minister, who is hopeful of a good decision by the Centre.)

Even a key Islamic party in Hyderabad, where 35% of the population are Muslims, the ‘Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), led by its articulate UK-trained lawyer, keen cricketer and MP, Asaduddin Owaisi, strongly pitched for a United Andhra Pradesh before the Srikrishna panel. “Even after Independence, Hyderabad as a State continued for a while until it was trifurcated (during linguistic reorganisation) when areas with Marathi-speaking people went to Maharashtra, Kannada-speaking areas to the then Mysore State and the remaining that was left with us was Telangana. That itself was a big loss for us in the aftermath of the Operation-Police,” Owaisi said. Moreover, dividing the State will later only benefit the BJP in Telangana, as the TRS and the TDP would post-division lose their relevance there, he reasoned.

If the growth of ‘communal’ forces and fears of Naxalites stepping up their activities continue to be strong arguments against creation of a separate Telangana – the BJP has already promised to deliver Telangana if its alliance came to power in Delhi in 2014 according to its State President G. Kishen Reddy – there are other radically contingent factors too that discount the Telangana protagonists’ case.

For instance, knowledgeable sources here are equally appalled by the Centre’s oversight when TRS Chief Chandrasekhar Rao went on an indefinite fast in 2009. “The TRS boss was only demanding deletion of clause 14-F of the Recruitment Rules to the Police Department to make Hyderabad a free zone, but the Centre bang announced Telangana formation,” said a veteran journalist here who did not wish to be named. The Chief Minister, Kiran Kumar Reddy made this point to the Congress Core Committee recently, he said. The PCC Chief, Botcha Sathyanarayana also told the party high command that in the event of a decision to concede Telangana State, “Hyderabad must be the common capital for at least 25 years like Hong Kong and Macau”, to ensure the safety of people from Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema who have settled in Hyderabad for generations now. “There are serious water-sharing issues too that, if ignored by the Centre, could spell the death-knell of farming in the Godavari and Krishna delta areas, India’s rice bowl,” the journalist added.

All these show how exceedingly complex the problems are in granting statehood to Telangana, though historically its position is uniquely different. “They (the Congress high command) are not seeing the people’s interests or view; they are only looking at the political angle in the run-up to the 2014 elections,” remarked N. Nageshwara Rao, TDP MP who is also in-charge of its Parliamentary party.

Ironically, though the TDP itself is for Telangana, his remarks oddly squares with meta-level political assessments of the latest developments by almost all the political parties in the State, including the Pradesh Congress, amid a perception that the Congress bosses in Delhi want to hastily push through a ‘solution’ on fear of losing ground to the breakaway YSR Congress and others. Is ‘Telangana’ a challenge that still needs patient tackling, or an opportunity to be encashed for the UPA-II, has thus become a million dollar question.

Civil society’s angst

“Whether they agree to Telangana or not, please reach a conclusion soon; why are you taking the lives and livelihood of us poor,” asked Shankar, an auto-rickshaw driver, as he negotiated past numerous potholes on the road and the relentless traffic snarls. He was referring to the numerous ‘bandhs’ and violence that besiege Hyderabad ever so frequently, putting off visitors to this city in recent times.

Upon some more prodding, Shankar, who hails from a family of landless agricultural labour in Shamshabad, where the impressive, new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport has come up, slowly opens up: “If Telangana happens, at least our children will get jobs. That is my understanding. Right now, all the jobs are cornered by the people of Andhra region.” Srinivas, another auto-rickshaw driver who lives in the eastern suburb of Uppal, echoes the same feeling. Water scarcity shut off his farming, forcing him to drive an auto-rickshaw. “We are over the brink; we should ensure at least a better future for our children. That is why we want Telangana,” he asserts.

These two stories are but small slices of a much larger picture, but they point to a common thread that runs through the pro-Telangana sentiment – employment and other basic necessities of life like water. However, Telangana “is not only about jobs,” says Srikanth Rao, a research scholar hailing from Medak district, at the 95-year-old Osmania University, now the hotbed of the Movement. How did this feeling of sub-regionalism take roots in the campus?

“Most of us are from rural areas and have seen the disparity from up close,” says Rudra Reddy, a teaching faculty in Nizam College and a research scholar at the University. “While drawing up schemes, like the ones for irrigation and water supply, Telangana region has always been given step-brotherly treatment,’’ he emphasised. The benefits of granting Telangana statehood “will not percolate down immediately, but in the long run, we hope that things would be better,” he added.

Sure, skewed income distribution is the underlying premise here. But “the greater National debate should be on the defining principle of reorganisation of States,” counters social scientist and an Integrationist, Dr. Parakala Prabhakar. “Should we have a relook at the linguistic principle and find an effective alternative,” he asked. If the UPA conceded the separate Telangana State demand, other statehood movements like Gorkhaland, Bodoland, Vidarbha and Bundlkhand would gain credence, Dr. Prabhakar warned, adding, “Telangana today is a political game.” In fact, he attributed the fringe parties riding high on people’s sentiments on this issue “to turn it into a movement”, to the Congress party’s ambiguity over Telangana in the past decade.

Going a step further is N. Jayaprakash Narayan, President of the Lok Satta Party, who says that the demand for Telangana throws up several dilemmas before the running dispensation in New Delhi. They, in fact, are an offshoot of the ground realities, as was reflected in a survey by ‘Lokniti-CSDS’, a Delhi based Social Science research institution, in Andhra Pradesh in 2011. The survey revealed that support for Telangana is up to 50% within that region, while a huge 90% of people in the rest of Andhra Pradesh want the State to remain united. Will it ring a bell in New Delhi’s power corridors?

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