Decline of the Linguistic State
Cover story in the Outlook magazine. Feb 06, 2012.
Also see map below where I play cartographer.
Reorganisation of states
GEOGRAPHY LESSON REVISED
It won’t be such a bad thing—smaller states. Language-based units have run their course. It’s time to factor in economic, social, cultural realities.
Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in the run-up to the reorganisation of Indian states in 1956, had said that “small states will have small minds”. In a volatile post-Partition milieu, he had become acutely apprehensive about smaller states being created essentially on the linguistic principle. He feared it would lead to balkanisation and the final implosion of the idea of India. “First things should come first,” he had insisted and that meant the unity and integrity of the new nation. But around the same time, for the same reasons of federal unity, B.R. Ambedkar had advanced his thoughts on linguism as an organising principle. He had warned: “One state, one language (and not one language, one state) is the rule. Wherever there has been a departure to this rule there has been a danger to the state.... India cannot escape this fate if it continues to be a congeries of mixed states.”
In 2012, 56 years after the very first round of the reorganisation of states, we seem to have a different ‘thali’ of questions before us. We seem to have arrived at the crossroads on one of the basic features of our federal structure. Federal unity is no longer a serious concern like in the ’50s and ’60s, but with a spate of demands for new states coming up from practically every corner of India at different intervals and with varying intensity, and that too from within states once seen as linguistic and cultural wholes, one wonders if we have slowly begun to move away from the idea of the linguistic state. Has the nation begun to transact with far more pragmatic parameters like development, economic growth, demographic size and administrative convenience, instead of mere emotion? Ever since the creation of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand in 2000 and now, in November 2011, with the resolution passed for a four-way split of Uttar Pradesh, haven’t smaller states become the buzzword? Should we become a nation of 50 states and eight union territories (see imaginary map) in the next few decades from the existing 28 states and seven Union territories? Is it time we constituted a second States Reorganisation Commission (SRC)?
“Languages, unlike a mobile or a tablet, are things that last. They make a poor, overworked, under-appreciated people whole,” Mrinal Pande, Writer-Journalist
It appears that there is a general recognition of a drift away from linguistic states and a simultaneous investment of faith in smaller states. Two recent incidents offer an insight. A few weeks back, the Kannada media reported that when a delegation of Marathi-speaking people from the ‘disputed’ border district of Belgaum met Raj Thackeray, he reportedly told the delegation to learn to live in Karnataka. Similarly, Rahul Gandhi’s taunt during his UP poll campaign that people from the state should stop ‘begging’ in Maharashtra was largely an invitation to envisage an economically vibrant state, for which the answer may lie in Mayawati’s idea of splitting it up into four.
The growth rates of smaller states in the last five years too have looked encouraging. Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have done well. The growth rate of a reorganised Bihar has been an impressive 11 per cent over the last five years. Uttarakhand has also posted impressive figures compared to its estranged ‘parent state’, UP.
In this context of new demands and reasoning, many have felt that it would make eminent sense to constitute a second SRC. Senior journalist B.G. Verghese says that instead of reorganising the states in an untidy and piecemeal fashion, a new src would take a long-term view. “There is nothing wrong,” he says, “in envisaging India at 2040-50 with a population of around 1,600 million organised in 60 states, with an average population of 25 million each, and some 1,500 districts.” He also suggests that the terms of reference for the second src should not be political, but rather “techno-economic-administrative”. More states will not destabilise us, but agitation and alienation of the sort we see in Telangana will, he argues. To go with smaller states and new administrative boundaries, the setting up of natural resource regions, river basin authorities and zonal coordination committees that hold routine meetings become important. “If zonal panels as suggested by the first src were functional, then problems like the Mullaperiyar dam or Cauvery or Belgaum would have been sorted out very differently,” feels Verghese.
“The Tamils won’t opt for a reversion or revision. It is best not to wake up a sleeping animal.” Ashokmitran, Tamil Writer
Historian Ramachandra Guha is equally enthusiastic about smaller states and the setting up of a second SRC. India, he says, now faces a second generation of challenges, and these pertain to regional imbalances in social and economic development. A new src would look dispassionately into the demands for Vidarbha, Gorkhaland, Harit Pradesh (western UP), Kongu Nadu (western Tamil Nadu) etc. Smaller states alone would not do, the emphasis should also be on granting real financial and political autonomy to panchayats and municipalities, he adds.
Addressing the question on who should be assigned the responsibility of redrawing the map of India’s states, Guha goes a step ahead and suggests that the new src should draw its members not from political parties, but from the law, academia and the social sector. Pointing out that members of the first SRC were the jurist Fazl Ali; author and diplomat K.M. Panikkar and social worker H.N. Kunzru, who were all non-partisan and widely respected, he says that the members of the new src should be people like jurist Fali S. Nariman, economist Jean Dreze, sociologist Andre Beteille and social worker Ela Bhatt.
However, Marxist historian K.N. Panikkar, even as he concedes that there is a case for smaller states for effective administration and equitable distribution of natural resources, feels that there is no need for a second SRC as such. He fears that it would open up a Pandora’s box. Panikkar is more for blurring the boundaries between states. “The border should cease to be of any consequence for the people,” he says. “Internal migration and economic linkages should dissolve the existing boundaries between states, even when they maintain cultural identity and administrative distinction.”
“What happened in Assam, beginning with the creation of Nagaland in ’63, is not a linguistic but a political reorganisation.” M S Prabhakara, Writer-Journalist
The reorganisation argument becomes further nuanced when bureaucrat and India’s former ambassador to unesco, Chiranjiv Singh, puts forward a cultural rationale in place of the familiar administrative or economic one. “Whatever demands we see for new states may not be on linguistic lines, but there is an underlying cultural reasoning. Be it Telangana, Vidarbha or the four divisions of UP and Mithila, they are all cultural units. Also, don’t underestimate culturally distinct North Karnataka’s resentment over Old Mysore,” he says. Linguistically, too, these regions vary to a large extent. Braj, Avadhi or Maithili may have been reduced to dialects in the popular imagination, but they are anything but that. Surdas wrote in Braj Bhasha and Tulsidas wrote in Avadhi. So, Singh’s argument that the new src should recognise these cultural zones appears to be perfectly in place.
Singh further argues that it can’t be assumed that administratively smaller units will spur economic growth. They are not linked to each other, he asserts, offering a few examples: “Assam may grow tea, but the market is in Calcutta and Amritsar. Similarly, Amritsar is the largest producer of nose rings and, needless to say, people in the region don’t wear them. Haveri in Karnataka does not grow cardamom, but it is the market for the spice. This proves that economic linkages don’t respect administrative boundaries. Therefore, it is better that we reorganise on cultural lines. That will also rest easy on the collective memory of the people,” he concludes.
The question of SRC and the redrawing of the map aside, what has led to the decline of the linguistic state—at least as an exclusive logic? If one were to extrapolate the historical arguments of anthropologist Lisa Mitchell in her book, Language, Emotion and Politics in South India, language as an object of emotion or its personification in India, more specifically the South, was only a late 19th-century creation. But within half a century of the creation of the language-emotion nexus, Potti Sriramulu gave up his life for Telugu and Andhra in December 1952, and soon after, since 1964, Tamil Nadu witnessed a number of self-immolation incidents for the Tamil cause. Earlier, till the 1890s, there were no specifically demarcated domains for any language; there was only a multilingual milieu. How and why this creation happened is an interesting historical process, says Mitchell. Going by this, we could logically assume that language-based emotion may have run its course in a hundred years.
“Now, economic growth, cultural-linguistic-social identities, accountable administrative structure will be bases for reorganisation.”Asha Sarangi, Associate Professor, JNU
Writer-translator Kalyan Raman points out other factors that may have come to dominate the emotive linguistic field. He says the economic liberalisation in 1991 initiated three trends: inter-state mobility of unskilled workers, especially from impoverished regions to more prosperous states or cities; competition among the states for domestic and foreign investment; increased territorial claims over resources due to pressures of economic development. He points out the dichotomy of the present-day linguistic state thus: “On the one hand, as economic units, linguistic states are depending less on the community’s cultural identity for economic mobilisation to spur growth. On the other hand, cultural/linguistic identity is pressed into service for confrontational politics, whenever required. But the original raison d’etre for linguistic states—of community integration on social and economic planes—seems to have gone past its expiry date. I would say that linguistic states have morphed into something else, and that something else, because it is based on economic clout and political power, may be hard to dismantle.”
The hegemony of the standard version of state language over dialects and other minority languages also may have caused immense damage and dissipation of interest in linguistic states. For instance, when Karnataka celebrated 50 years of its existence in 2006, it only celebrated Kannada and forgot that Konkani, Tulu, Byary and Kodava were the state’s allied languages. Also, the backwards and Dalits, who were seen as guardians of local tongues, have moved on to experience the economically liberating energies of English.
Finally, it is important to point out that our very worldview as a nation seems to have undergone a sea change. We no longer imagine or define ourselves as living in villages, the so-called repositories of culture, but have made cities the nucleus of our being. In some ways, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) programme of the Union government is a metaphor for this transformation. Reporting some of the findings of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, linguist G.N. Devy pointed out recently that Maharashtra is Marathi-speaking, but Mumbai linguistically needs to be seen as a ‘national city’ rather than a state capital. Ditto would be the results for Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai.