The Mess in Delhi

India’s Newest State Telangana Is Bosnia Redux

By acquiescing to the formation of a new state, Telangana, India is setting a dangerous precedent of ethnic division.

Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty

By acquiescing in the formation of a new state called Telangana, India has succumbed to the greatest political fraud in its modern history. Andhra Pradesh, stretching from central to peninsular India, is larger than New Zealand. The Telugu-speaking Indians who predominate the state, numbering roughly 80 million, are more numerous than the French or the British. (Satya Nadella, the new CEO of Microsoft, is a Telugu, as is Nina Davuluri, the reigning Miss USA.) The Telugus’ contribution to recent Indian history has been both constructive and corrosive. If the flag of independent India was the product of a Telugu patriot’s inclusive imagination, the map of contemporary India is the consequence of the Telugus’ insularity. It was the Telugus’ agitation in the 1950s for cultural and linguistic homogeneity that prompted the restructuring of Indian territory into linguistic states. Andhra Pradesh was born on November 1, 1956, as free India’s first state.

To its proponents Andhra was the meridian, after 600 years of division and dispersal, of Telugu civilization. It was the largest state in peninsular India, returned the second-largest contingent of MPs to the Indian parliament, housed the third-largest linguistic bloc in the country, and was the geographic intersection that bridged north and south. But the moment could not be sustained. Less than 60 years after its historic creation, Andhra is poised to be partitioned once again. The irony is that the Telugus, having precipitated the reorganization of India by invoking language as a legitimate instrument of political mobilization, will now become the only major linguistic minority within India to be divided by boundaries.

Telangana, scheduled to be inducted into the Union of India in June as its 29th state, will be made up of 10 of the 23 districts of Andhra Pradesh. But what is being heralded by its champions as a deliverance from discrimination is, in reality, a fresh monument to petty chauvinism. A crack in the rationale that underpins the unity of India, the proposal to partition Andhra was sanctified and railroaded through parliament by the doomed Gandhi dynasty seeking desperately to avert its approaching extinction. Andhra Pradesh has 42 parliamentary constituencies; 33 of these elected Congress candidates in the previous election. But support for Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, has withered in the old stronghold. So dividing the state hastily came to be seen as imperative to salvaging the family’s reputation: it might yield some votes from the grateful people of Telangana. They moved swiftly. As the national opposition to the partition plan grew, television broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings were blacked out for the first time since cameras were introduced to the house. Members opposed to the bill were expelled from parliament and barred from voting. Outside parliament, anyone who challenged the clamour for partition was devoured by the mobs.

The public campaign for Telangana was built around economic grievances: we are backward, our resources are being fleeced by people from the formerly British-governed regions, so give us our own state. But this argument could not work because the mechanisms to redress the inequities of the state existed within the legislative framework of Andhra Pradesh. Dismantling it was not necessary. The most important land reforms in the state’s history were enacted by this legislature and overseen by PV Narasimha Rao, the most consequential prime minister in India’s history after Jawaharlal Nehru. PV traced his origins to Telangana, and yet he had bitterly opposed the idea of partition during his lifetime. The Srikrishna Committee, instituted by the government in 2010 to examine the merits of the Telangana demand, rejected the argument of economic backwardness. So where was the discrimination?

When all the questions had been considered and exhausted, what remained was rage.

To witness the campaign for Telangana was to understand the attraction, to a people damaged by history, of the degrading consolations of victimhood. Telangana, after all, is the region where the Telugus, who have a continuous history of more than 2,000 years, experienced their golden age. It was from here that the Kakatiyas, founders of the great Telugu kingdom that lasted from the 12th to the 14th century, unified the Telugu-speaking regions that correspond roughly to today’s Andhra. The reign of the Kakatiyas was remarkably progressive—“unaffected,” in the words of the American scholar Richard Eaton, by “notions of caste and hierarchy.” It was one of the very few realms in India to elevate a woman to the throne. Travelling through Andhra in the 13th century, Marco Polo described Queen Rudramma (1263-89) as “a lover of justice, of equity, and of peace… more beloved by those of her kingdom than ever was Lady or Lord of theirs before.” Her kingdom was replete with precious stones, Telangana’s main export: “Those that are brought to our part of the world are only the refuse, as it were, of the finer and larger stones.” Rudramma’s subjects, Marco Polo concluded, “possess all the great treasures of the world.”

But this world was about to be upended. Substantial portions of India had by then already fallen to foreign marauders. Some of them settled, went native, and added an additional layer of diversity to India’s existing pluralism. But their arrival was experienced by Indians, who found their worlds abruptly overturned, as a calamity. Rudramma’s adopted son, Pratap Rudra (1289-1323), would be the last monarch of the most formidable Telugu realm. His capital, Warangal, was then one of the most prosperous cities in the world. The first assault on the city was launched in 1310, but Pratap Rudra succeeded in securing peace by agreeing to pay tribute to Alauddin Khilji, the central Asian overlord of Delhi. But the arrangement collapsed. The second siege, chronicled vividly by the poet Amir Khusro, was ferocious. Beginning in 1318, it inaugurated the gradual demise of Telugu sovereignty. Dispatched from Delhi to “Tilang” with instructions to convert its inhabitants to Islam or collect from them the taxes due from non-believers—or, failing at both, to chop off the resisters’ heads—Khusru Khan saw decadence all around him. “On all sides… there were fountains and gardens, calculated to gratify those who are in search of pleasure. All its fruits were mangoes, plantains and jacks; not cold apples or icy quinces. All the flowers which he saw were Hindu: the champa, keora, and jasmine. When the great Khan witnessed all this, he prayed Almighty God for assistance, and then returned to his camp.”

Khusru Khan’s military campaign, which began the next day, was thorough. “That paradise of idol-worshippers became like hell.” Pratap Rudra sued once again for peace. In addition to property and jewels, he offered the “rapacious Khan” a hundred elephants and 12,000 horses, and pacified him further with a long speech in which he extolled the “Turks” as lions who, “whenever they please, can seize, buy, or sell any Hindu.” It worked. With soldierly magnanimity, Khan returned most of the lavish gifts given him by the king. But Pratap Rudra, routed repeatedly by his lack of preparedness in a rapidly altering region, had exposed his weaknesses. Five years later, when he attempted once again to withhold taxes, he was finished.

The devastation was unprecedented. Telugu territories were conquered over several months, stripped to their barest essentials, and then incorporated into the Delhi Sultanate. Warangal’s architectural wonder, the colossal Svayambhushiva temple, was razed and replaced with a mosque. Pratap Rudra, who had put up his best fight yet, was taken prisoner and banished to Delhi; he died en route. A handful of minor Telugu dynasties sprang up later; they were tenacious, and frequently disrupted the expansion of their colonizers. Literature that affirmed the region’s cultural nexus with the rest of India continued miraculously to find patronage: Mallinatha Suri’s magnificent commentaries on the Sanskrit epics and Pillamarri’s translation into Telugu of Kalidasa’s Abhijnanasakuntalam appeared many decades after Warangal's fall. But the Telugus, peaking early, knew their glory was behind them. Their finest thinkers and ablest warriors migrated southward. Vijayanagar (1336-1646), the last great Indian kingdom to be administered by a native aristocracy, was most likely established by Telugu soldiers who fled Warangal. What began as an anti-imperialist holdout that provided refuge to Indians fleeing persecution in the north flourished into the bastion of an imperilled civilization. But Vijayanagar—even though was it founded by Telugu warriors, attained a Telugu character, depended on Telugu administrators, and elevated Telugu to the status of a divine language—was not a Telugu kingdom.

The Telugu recovery, such as it was, was a few centuries away. It was only with the arrival of the British—and only in those territories ceded to them in the late 18th century by the Asif Jah dynasty, which had by then taken possession of much of the former Telugu country—that progress of sorts began to occur. The coastal east (Seemandhra) and the jagged south (Rayalaseema) fell under British administration; Telangana, the arid inland, remained under the Nizams as part of Hyderabad. The former modernized; the latter stagnated. Telugu, which had fallen into catastrophic decline following the collapse of Vijayanagar, was rescued and revitalized in the British-held regions by civil servants such as Charles Phillip Brown. A literary ferment erupted in coastal Andhra between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The possession once again by the natives of the means with which to assess the past gave rise to some of the Telugu language’s most extraordinary poets, novelists and playwrights—Gurajada Apparao, Dharmavaram Ramakrishnacharyulu, Vedam Sastri.

The contrast with Telangana could not have been more striking. Lacking devoted patronage, there Telugu evolved into a spectacularly hideous argot. By the time of India’s independence in August 1947, the Nizam of Hyderabad was the world’s wealthiest man, his subjects were among its poorest people, and although his capital was one of the best endowed cities in India, Telangana—the dry country which formed the bulk of his kingdom—was a theatre of almost ancient horrors. Its human cast was made up of feudal lords—belonging to the Reddi and Velama castes—and landless peasants emaciated by generations of servitude.

The Telugus who were subjected to British rule had acquired the agency to protest it. They participated in the struggle to liberate India in language borrowed from or revitalized by their rulers. The Telugus who emerged from the Nizam’s rule embodied centuries of neglect. Telugu, the “sweetest and most musical" of Indian languages, ceased to exist in Telangana. In its place came something which, striving to fuse Urdu and Telugu, seemed to devalue both. The language of poetry in medieval south India, capacious enough to encompass the full range of Sanskrit, Telugu became, in Telangana, unfit even for prose. It could not support or foster a culture. Men who had built one of the world’s marvels in Warangal, now diminished and disconnected from their past, walked as serfs among its ruins. What was lost could not be recovered and what came later, like all imperialisms, could not adequately compensate for what it had destroyed.

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But Telangana’s misery was not at an end. The Nizam, continuing to see himself as a foreigner, refused to accede to India upon independence. The taxes extracted from his etiolated subjects were transferred to Pakistan’s exchequer. "India," the Nizam's prime minister said, "thinks that if Pakistan attacks her, Hyderabad will stab her in the back. I am not so sure we would not." When the people rebelled, the Nizam’s irregular forces—Razakars—declared a war. Several thousand men, women and children—Muslims and Hindus and Christians—were slaughtered by the sword-wielding enforcers of the Nizam’s imperial writ. It would have been inexpressibly cathartic had India, after liberating Hyderabad in September 1948, captured and tried the Nizam. His culpability was indisputable. Besides, the tremendous rage that had built up within his Telugu subjects needed a release.

Instead, the Nizam was pensioned off. The war criminals who presided over the rape and execution of Telangana’s civilians were permitted to go to Pakistan. And the Muslim-Hindu collaboration that had bolstered the uprising against the Nizam dissolved into a communal conflict that culminated in the mass murder of up to 50,000 Muslim civilians. The secular Indian state’s arrival in Telangana began with two mistakes: first, the failure to hold the Nizam accountable for his crimes against humanity; and second, the suppression of the official reports that detailed the subsequent massacres of Muslims by Hindus. Exposure to the Indian state began with disappointment for virtually every party in Telangana.

Writing in 1910, the great Telugu poet Gurajada had urged the Telugus to rise above the constrictions of language, religion and region, and to see themselves as parts of the larger Indian nation:

What if religions differ?If men are of one mindA united nation will rise, growAnd shine forth in the land

But such exhortations could scarcely resonate in Telangana, where the imaginations of the once-brilliant people had wilted during centuries of misrule. Damaged by the past, they became receptive to ruinous ideologies and causes: Jinnahism, Stalinism, Maoism, Leninism, Naxalism: any —ism that was adversarial to the health and unity of India found an eager audience in Telangana. The quest for Telangana as a separate state was itself always an aspect of that old unspent rage. But its beneficiaries will be the same feudal castes. It’s hardly surprising that the man who renewed the charge for Telangana’s creation—a demagogue called Chandrashekhar Rao—belongs to the caste which, under the Nizam, enriched itself by subjugating peasants.

The people of Telangana have been promised fortunes after the expulsion of the “outsiders” who are apparently the cause of their misfortune. But partitioning Andhra, far from healing old wounds, is likely only to deepen them. Telangana’s creation is already being seen as vindicating the narrative that fueled the movement: that its backwardness was caused by the usurpation of its resources by “outsiders.” These “outsiders” are being invited to atone for their sins by leaving the new state. This is why Telangana is more than a Telugu tragedy. It is a challenge to India.

The breakup of Andhra Pradesh demonstrates how fragile, despite its soaring claims, the Indian national project remains—and how easily, in the absence of resolute leadership, it can be made to unravel. Here is a set of people that speaks the same language, practices the same culture, and pledges allegiance to the same country. Yet a tiny rabble of semi-literate politicians was able to make these people so homicidally conscious of their differences that only permanent political division appeared to them as a reliable guarantor of equitable representation. But by legitimizing the solipsistic belief that people’s interests are best served only by refining pluralistic populations into ever-narrowing homogenous units, and by conferring respectability on what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences,” multiethnic India is vitiating its own nationalism. If Telugus can’t live with Telugus, why, someone is bound to ask, should the Kannadigas be asked to live with the Assamese? And having pandered to Telugus who won’t tolerate Telugus, can India then ask the Marathis to tolerate the Mizos, or the Kashmiris to tolerate the Biharis?

Such questions have not been asked because many of India’s foremost public intellectuals—of the “national,” not the “regional,” variety—possess a bomb-proof faith in the exceptionalism of their country. Preoccupied with panegyrizing the specialness of India, they slept through the breakthrough of Hindu nationalism. Similarly, the division of Andhra has failed to elicit from them an original response. Eighty million people are being haphazardly sundered, and the vocabulary of many of the country’s most influential voices cannot make a phrase that rises above jargon. “Telangana is really nothing more than a minor administrative adjustment,” one such individual with considerable clout recently told me. It struck me as language borrowed from some bureaucratic circular. But the most unsettling feature of such assessments is their sincerity. They emanate from the belief that India will just go on.

But regardless of what many Indians believe, India is not a divinely ordained idea. For India to survive, Indians will have to do more than profess affection for their country: they will have to tolerate other Indians. The idea may seem risible right now: but if every disgruntled “group” with a grievance is bought off with exclusive political ownership of a specific territory, India will eventually go the way of Yugoslavia. Federal devolution of power can certainly improve governance; but it can also, as in Telangana, enable ambitious regional politicians to divide settled populations and establish new hierarchies of belonging over territories. As a prominent Telangana intellectual recently told me: “‘Regionalism’ is the single-biggest threat to India today. If we say yes to Telangana, why not say yes to caste-based states? After all, caste is the most resistant feature of our politics, so why not just make it the basis for states formation? Why not religion? We can go on like this… Indulging identities is dangerous to India’s health. Ours is a unique nation, and we have to assert our unity and say no to these narrow-minded movements. Otherwise, the center will collapse. The center can’t hold.” It is views such as these that have insured India’s unity since 1947. And yet shamefully, today their expression is accompanied by a request for anonymity. In the atmosphere of terror that suffuses Telangana, dissent can be fatal. The defeat is India’s.

India was founded to erase divisive identities, not to deepen them. As the freedom activist Sarat Chandra Bose once phrased it, India’s purpose was to create an “immense melting-pot in which the characters of all the races and nationalities comprised in it will be mixed and out which a new ‘worldism’ will arise which will recognise no frontiers, no races….” Has India moved closer to, or away from, this ideal? The evidence is before us.

The activists of Telangana claim to love India, but have shown themselves incapable of tolerating Indians. The journalist Parakala Prabhakar has written with great feeling about his predicament as a Telugu Indian from coastal Andhra living in Hyderabad. A man of means and education, he could have settled anywhere in the world. He chose Hyderabad. His father was among the men who shaped the city and the state. Now Prabhakar is being told that Hyderabad is not his city, even that he is an enemy of the “local”—a word which, with its ugly proprietorial connotations, sullies everyone else as a predatory alien. Prabhakar is politely being asked to vacate his city and his home. The defeat is not Prabhakar’s alone. It is India’s. In the centre of India, we now have what our despotic former ruler, the last Nizam of Hyderabad, had once sought to build: a miniature Pakistan. Everyone who loves India should mourn this abomination called Telangana.

An earlier version of this piece listed an incorrect byline. The Daily Beast regrets this error.