Telangana’s Hard-Fought Freedom: a case study of India’s developmental challenges

After more than 50 years of demand, Telangana has finally broken free of Andhra Pradesh to become India’s 29th state. Supporters of a ‘free’ Telangana hope that years of government neglect for the largely-rural region will now come to an end.

The formation of Telangana has prompted vibrant celebrations
The formation of Telangana has prompted vibrant celebrations

Telangana has always been something of a headache for India’s rulers. Between 1946 and 1951 – during the transition from British to Indian rule – a communist-backed peasant insurgency took place against feudal lords in the region, in what became known as the ‘Telangana Rebellion’. A severe crackdown by the Indian Army targeting the communists led to the imprisonment and torture of many peasants, breeding anti-elitist resentment.

As a way of diminishing the influence of the communists, Telangana was incorporated into the state of Andhra Pradesh in 1956 and the communist party was officially welcomed into the democratic fold. They would poll second in regional elections, behind the Indian Congress, and their joining of the official political system dampened their radical appeal. As Asoka Mehta noted as early as 1957: “The separation of Andhra Pradesh [i.e. incorporating Telangana] seems to have paid good dividends to the ruling party”.

Yet despite their success in nullifying the communist threat, the Indian government had overlooked an underlying problem caused by the creation of Andhra state itself. As Selig Harrison wrote in 1956:

The balance of power between castes in a multilingual political unit with its many caste groups differs radically from that in the smaller linguistic unit. This has already been apparent in Andhra, where two rival Telugu peasant proprietor castes, the Kammas and Reddis, have kept the state in political upheaval since its formation in 1953. Before the separation of Andhra from multilingual Madras State, the Kammas and Reddis were lost in the welter of castes. In Andhra they face each other as titans.

Andhra Pradesh may have been created as a linguistically-heterogeneous state; yet that did not mean that marked social divisions did not remain.

1950s India Source: Harrison, 1956
1950s India
Source: Harrison, 1956

By the late 1960s a concerted ‘Telangana Movement’ had emerged, calling for a state separate from Andhra Pradesh. A series of protests, strikes and demonstrations ended with a brutal police crackdown in 1969, during which many were injured and killed.

The momentum of the movement was only curtailed by an Eight-Point Plan agreed between local leaders and the government. However, over the ensuing decades the promises of significant reform failed to be delivered.

Feeding into tensions of caste and regional identity was economic development. Before bifurcation, Andhra Pradesh ranked as India’s 3rd richest state (by GDP) and 6th in GDP per capita. Yet despite an impressive agricultural sector, the economic divide between city and countryside became overwhelming. This reached a head in 2004 when Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu, was ousted:

He focused so heavily on reviving the state’s blighted cities that he was voted out by the rural majority after nine years in power. (Sharma, 2013)

Many of the largest rural areas are in Telangana and the perceived neglect of common farmers became intertwined with the movement for a separate state where greater recognition for the rural poor would be achieved. Indeed, political, and by extension economic, power in Andhra Pradesh has typically be concentrated in the hands of the Reddi caste, despite a Kapu and Kamma majority. The Reddi have generally supported the long-ruling Congress, rather than the regional Telugu Desam Party favoured by the Kamma.

Telangana may have won its ‘freedom’ but it remains a good case study for the developmental challenges facing India; caste divisions, the income disparity between urban and rural, uneven political representation. To think that these issues will suddenly be resolved is wishful thinking.

That said, the psychological impact that bifurcation might have on the inhabitants of Telangana could pay dividends, helping to create a sense of shared destiny between politicians and populace alike. The future development of Telangana will certainly be monitored carefully.

Sources

Selig S Harrison, ‘The Challenge to Indian Nationalism’, Foreign Affairs (July 1956)

Asoka Mehta, ‘The Political Mind of India’, Foreign Affairs (July 1957)

Ruchir Sharma, ‘The Rise of the Rest of India: How States Have Become the Engines of Growth’, Foreign Affairs (September/October 2013)

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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