The violent route to states’ reorganization in India

The violent route to states’ reorganization in India

P K Balachandran,
Police firing teargas shells in Gorkhalabd agitation. Photo: Indian Express

Although India has been a democracy with a plethora of institutions to solve political, social and economic problems through debate and discussion, significant domestic changes have come about, not through constitutional means, but through violence.

Indian ruling classes, whether ethnic, linguistic or religious, have shown a consistent tendency to ignore or reject demands peacefully made by minority communities and other oppressed groups. When out of frustration these movements become violent, the ruling classes fight them with para military and regular armed forces. But eventually, the demands are more or less met, giving the impression that violence pays.

Demands from disadvantaged sub-groups for greater autonomy have been coming up frequently. And going by the history of the formation of new states or provinces, violence has delivered the goods.

The reorganization of India’s provinces has been an issue since the partition of Bengal in the early 1900s. In 1906, in the aftermath of the partition of Bengal, Congress party stalwart from Maharashtra Bal Gangdhar Tilak demanded the establishment of Maharashtra or the land of the Marathi-speaking people by dividing the huge Bombay Presidency which included the whole of present-day Gujarat, Maharashtra and parts of Karnataka. The demand was put up before the Congress party in 1919 and the latter approved it because it felt that the formation of language-based provinces was necessary to bring democracy to the functioning of provincial governments. In fact, the Congress party’s units were language-based to enable them to function effectively.

Regional economic disparities within language groups came to the fore in 1938, when Marathi-speakers of the backward and neglected Vidharba region demanded a separate Vidharba province.  

In 1948, after the exit of Britain from India, the Congress party formed a high-level committee comprising Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramaiah, to come up with a blueprint for re-organizing India’s territorial units.

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But since the fledgling government of independent India was reeling under the traumatic and bloody creation of Pakistan, both in the West and the East; the integration of the hundreds of Princely States into India; and the war in Kashmir, the question of  the reorganization of the provinces took a backseat.

The Congress government at the Center under Nehru also felt that in the aftermath of the creation of Pakistan through the division of Punjab and Bengal, India should not be further divided. Nehru’s government turned its face away from sub-dividing India into linguistic or sub-national units also because of a fear of the emergence of separatist sub-nationalisms.    

But this indifference could not last long. Demands for the formation linguistic provinces rose again forcefully in the multi-lingual Madras Presidency. Congress leader Potti Sriramulu went on a fast unto death for the creation of a Telugu speaking Andhra Pradesh. It was only when Sriramulu died fasting, that the demand was conceded. This triggered a new trend of using coercive methods to secure demands for territorial and linguistic autonomy.

Though opposed to the formation of linguistic provinces, Nehru set up the States’ Reorganization Commission in 1955 and accepted its recommendation for the creation of linguistic states a year later.

The map of India was redrawn and yet, many issues were brushed under the carpet. One of them was the partitioning of the Bombay Presidency into Marathi and Gujarati speaking units and the status of Bombay city, which had a Marathi-majority but whose economy was in the hands of Gujaratis and other linguistic groups.

Given its commercial importance to India as a whole, Nehru wanted Bombay city to be a separate unit administered by the Central government. But this was violently opposed. Marathis wanted Bombay to be in Maharashtra and the Gujaratis wanted it to be either in Gujarat or to be independently administered. It was only in 1960 that Marathi-speaking Maharashtra and Gujarati-speaking Gujarat were created.

In North Western India, the Sikhs of Punjab were demanding a Punjabi-speaking state called Punjabi Suba since the early 1950s. But Punjabi-speaking Punjab was created only in 1966 after Sant Fateh Singh went on fasts unto death several times. In the early 1970s, following the creation of Bangladesh, the Sikhs launched an armed struggle for an independent Khalistan supported by Pakistan but that was put down after much bloodshed.  

Meanwhile, the Nagas in Eastern India, had started an armed struggle for full independence. Though the Indian government tried to put it down by force, New Delhi went in for talks eventually, and both sides settled for a separate province of Nagaland in 1963. The Mizos’ demand for independence was also met with military action but eventually New Delhi created the state of Mizoram in the 1980s. But the Bodos’ armed struggle for a Bodoland is yet to bear fruit.

Among the unsolved issues is the demand of the Nepali-speaking Gorkhas of West Bengal for a separate Ghorkhaland comprising Darjeeling, Kalimpong and parts of Siliguri. The demand was made for the first time in 1907. The British rulers ignored it. The chicken came home to roost after India’s independence when the issue was raised again in 1950. But Prime Minister Nehru made light of it. The matter came up before the State Reorganization Commission in 1955, but only to be rejected.  

However, in 1981, with the rise of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), led by Subhas Ghising, the issue took a radical and violent turn. Between 1986 and 1988, more than 1,200 were killed. However, predictably, violence resulted in the creation of the Gorkha Territorial Administration in 2012 with limited powers but within West Bengal.

The Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM), which succeeded GNLF, rejected the new set up and demanded full statehood for Gorkhaland. However, the demand was voiced only verbally. The GJM was in electoral politics as an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

But a great deal of violence was unleashed last week when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee suddenly announced a decision to make Bangla language compulsory in all schools. The West Bengal government met force with force calling in the army. Vehicles were set on fire and one person was killed in police firing.

While the Darjeeling unit of the BJP supports the formation of Gorkhaland,  the BJP’s West Bengal unit is dead against it because the Bengali majority in West Bengal is against statehood for Gorkhaland. The Congress and the Marxists share this view and for the same reasons.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is in no mood to give in. “There is a terrorist brain behind this hooliganism. I am ready to sacrifice my life, but I will not allow Bengal to be divided,” she declared.