Published September 04, 2013
NEW DELHI – India, a nation of 1.2 billion people, has 28 states. Some would rank among the world's most populous countries.
So when India's ruling coalition endorsed a 29th state last month, millions of people who have felt ignored and marginalized living far from their state capitals had the same reaction: Why not us?
In West Bengal state, for example, tens of thousands of indigenous Gorkhas demanding their own state — Gorkhaland — have barricaded streets in Darjeeling, the town best known for its prized tea gardens. Strikes have shut down businesses. Police arrested dozens of activists and clamped a curfew in the worst-hit districts last week.
Demands for more than two dozen new states have burst into mutinous life, and the strikes and protests could redraw India's political map.
There are no immediate signs of widespread instability, but the localized rumblings could deflect government attention from its most pressing task: improving the struggling Indian economy.
It's unclear whether the ruling coalition will accept more states. Even the proposal it endorsed, for carving the state of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh state, is a long way from implementation.
India has always been a political patchwork of astonishingly diverse humanity. Since independence from Britain in 1947, the sprawling country of different religions, distinct cultures and hundreds of languages has been bound together into a cohesive if chaotic democracy.
The Indian system gives broad power to states, which were drawn broadly along linguistic lines, most of them by a state reorganization commission in the mid-1950s. But many states are so large they have become difficult to govern, leaving politically marginalized regions out of India's economic boom.
Some larger states have already been split apart, most recently with the creation of three new states in 2000. If Telangana clears numerous legislative hurdles, it will become the country's 29th state.
Telangana would be composed of the mostly poor, inland districts of Andhra Pradesh state. While its people are ethnically the same as most in Andhra Pradesh, they have long felt ignored by a state government that appeared to divert most resources to the more prosperous southern and coastal districts. For years, the region has been churned by violent protests and hunger strikes.
People in Telangana celebrated when New Delhi backed the creation of the new state, but the decision also triggered counterprotests from supporters of a united Andhra Pradesh. A key point of contention is that the proposed Telangana would include Hyderabad, a wealthy IT and industrial hub.
In New Delhi, angry lawmakers on both sides of the Telangana debate repeatedly disrupted the lower house of parliament this week, and nine parliamentarians were suspended.
The decision on a new state faces several hurdles. The home ministry must decide how to divide Andhra Pradesh's resources, waterways and employees. The federal Cabinet, India's president, the state assembly and parliament would have to approve the plan. Parsa V. Rao, a political analyst in New Delhi, said the process will take several months at least.
The abrupt decision on Telangana by the Congress party, the most powerful member of the ruling coalition, was made with next year's general elections in mind, but it has given new life to other longstanding demands for new states based on ethnic or linguistic lines.
Claimants to more than two dozen potential states feel their demands now stand a greater chance of success. Aside from Telangana, however, the government has answered most demands for new states by suggesting exploratory talks but making no commitments.
Activists in the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra state are demanding statehood, arguing that the impoverished, water-scarce region has been ignored in favor of the coastal areas around Mumbai. In central India, economically deprived Bundelkhand, currently split between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states, has convulsed with demands to separate. The western part of Uttar Pradesh wants to break away to form Harit Pradesh, a prosperous enclave close to the national capital.
In India's northeast, a cauldron of ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, calls for a multitude of separate states have been simmering for decades. Apart from the Gorkhas, there are demands from the Bodo, Karbi, Dimasa, Kuki and Naga ethnic groups, all seeking new states.
The Gorkhaland and Bodo movements, two of the most prominent splinter groups, are much older than the efforts to create a Telangana state, and the leaders of those groups see the Telangana decision as nothing short of a betrayal of their own dreams.
"If they can give Telangana, then why can't we have Bodoland? We want a similar kind of justice," said S.K. Bwismuthiary, a member of parliament from the remote northeastern state of Assam.
"Our struggle for a separate Bodoland will be relentless," said Pramod Boro of the All Bodo Students Union.
The demand for smaller states is spurred by hopes that they would bring more government funds and better governance. Behind the scenes are the corrupt politicians and hangers-on anticipating the money that flows when entire state governments are created.
But the status quo carries its own consequences in large states such as Uttar Pradesh, which has 200 million people and some of India's worst literacy, health and poverty statistics.
Uttar Pradesh's main opposition party has demanded that the state be carved into four smaller units. It was a demand that Mayawati, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and now the opposition leader, made during her tenure as head of the state.
Mayawati's critics, though, say she's not seeking better governance, but a way to extend her party's influence to four states rather than just one. Her five-year term as chief minister was marred with charges of corruption and graft.
Political analysts, though, say past attempts to create smaller states have paid off.
Ajit Kumar Singh of the Giri Institute of Development Studies, a think tank in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, says newer, smaller states have all performed well and their economic growth has been relatively fast.
"The general evidence is that all the newly created smaller states show average growth rates that have been much above the national average," Singh said.
But, he added, the government cannot give in to every demand for a new state, and should not be steered by electoral agendas.
"A rational approach should be followed," Singh said. "It is time for a second state reorganization commission to look at the claims of all stake holders and provide equitable outcomes."
Fighters for statehood are willing to talk but say their patience will eventually run out. The Bodoland protests have stopped but could be restarted at a moment's notice, Boro said.
"For now, we have agreed to put our agitation on hold after the government said it is willing to talk about a separate Bodoland state," he said. "We have waited for so long."