Two events, August 15 and January 26, crowd out other historical milestones in the Republic’s journey. Certainly, most Indians do not look upon November 1 as a red letter day imbued with any historical significance. Yet, the date envelopes within its folds, not one but two vital landmarks: November 1, 1956, remapped the Republic’s cartography, picking up the fragments of feudal, regressive principalities and building on the ruins of British presidencies, by reorganising states into the geographical contours with which we are now familiar. Ten years later, on November 1, 1966, came another advance—the bifurcation of post-Partition Punjab into Haryana and Punjab.
In the Republic’s 70th year, it may be worthwhile reflecting on the significance of these two signposts, especially because the day is likely to be remembered largely by the lavish golden jubilee celebrations in Haryana, attended by Narendra Modi himself, and the low-key ‘Rajyotsava’ state rituals in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, to celebrate the anniversary of their formation. Ironically, in the fragmented India that we live in, the larger significance of the milestone has been lost. That of providing a stable building-block upon which India’s federal system could rest. And building a political consensus around the idea of vernacular languages being used as the basis for statehood.
Let us for a moment go back to the early 1950s when the Republic, still in its infancy, faced some extraordinary challenges. After the Partition, India’s geo-body was like a patchwork. Two regions, Bengal and Punjab, had been dismembered, affecting the families of millions and their livelihoods. Over 560 princely states had to be ‘integrated’ within the nation’s fabric, not only geographically, but also politically. The grossly oversized Bombay and Madras presidencies existed on the map as legacies of the British, reflecting colonial military exigencies, administrative convenience and considerations of revenue extraction. The vast Madras province, for example, lacked any linguistic or cultural coherence and was made up of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi speaking peoples. Clearly, a key challenge for the nation lay in redrawing its political map.
However, what were the principles to be used for this purpose? Linguistic movements at the grassroots provided the answer. The ‘martyrdom’ of Potti Sitaramalu, after a 58-day fast, forced Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister, to agree to a Telugu state in 1952. This opened a Pandora’s box, as linguistic agitations grew insistent for the creation of Kannada, Tamil, Marathi and Punjabi-speaking states. In principle, the idea was not a bad one. Language was after all a stable cultural marker, which united people into a ‘speech community’ and could be used to demarcate internal boundaries within the nation. Nonetheless, the timing was awful, as the young nation struggled to put behind legacies of the colossal territorial secession of the Partition. In the 1950s, infamously referred to as India’s ‘most dangerous decade’, national unity was seen to be fragile, intangible, easy to jeopardise.
Moreover, Nehru discovered that in the political arena, language could be double-edged: it could be a binding force, but it could also be deeply divisive. Agitations for new states came to be often marked by contentions over territory and sharing of capitals and river waters. Claims by one linguistic group often led to counter-agitations by others. Unsurprisingly, the central leadership looked upon linguistic agitations as unwanted, unnecessary and untimely controversies which would sap the political energies of the new nation and distract it from its pressing need for political consolidation and rapid economic development.
Yet, Nehru realised that linguistic agitations for separate statehood could not simply be brushed aside. However, he believed that his government needed to work with certain consistent principles in dealing with demands for statehood being raised across India. This led him to appoint the high-powered States Reorganisation Commission (SRC), to establish principles which could be used by the new nation to demarcate internal political boundaries. He put together in the SRC a stellar cast of three “outstanding and impartial” persons’: Sir Saiyid Fazl Ali, a much respected retired judge, who was appointed as the commission’s chair; Hriday Nath Kunzru, a member of the Rajya Sabha and a well-regarded public figure associated with several institutions and causes; and finally, Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, a distinguished author, historian, administrator and diplomat. “The subject is of the highest importance and, in fact, it means the drawing up of a new map of India,” was the brief that Nehru gave to the three commissioners.
A nondescript house on Malcha Marg in New Delhi’s then embryonic diplomatic enclave served as the commission’s makeshift office for almost 21 months, as its three members worked tirelessly to discharge their momentous responsibility. Beginning in early 1954, the SRC held widespread nation-wide consultations with individuals and institutions, in the course of which it received 1,52,250 written submissions. Its members extensively toured the country, visiting 104 cities and towns and logging 61,155 km of travel. They conducted interviews with a cross-section of people, a veritable who’s who of Indian politics from different regions.
The SRC laid down four principles in formulating their recommendations: a) preservation and strengthening of India’s unity and security; b) linguistic and cultural homogeneity of regions; c) financial, economic and administrative considerations to ensure the viability of states; and, finally, d) successful working of five-year developmental plans. The Commission noted that it was neither desirable nor possible to reorganise states using a single criterion. On November 1, 1956, when the nation’s map was redrawn, their report served as the basis for the exercise.
The ‘martyrdom’ of Potti Sitaramalu (above), after a 58-day fast, forced Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister, to agree to a Telugu state in 1952.
Let us consider the momentous geo-political changes which came to be effected. In what became the SRC’s outstanding contribution, the states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Madras (renamed Tamil Nadu in 1969) and Mysore (renamed Karnataka in 1973) were formed on the basis of language. The SRC simplified the federal structure by reducing states in the Union from 27 to 14. A number of states comprising former princely states, including Cutch, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Coorg, Saurashtra, PEPSU, Vindhya Pradesh and Madhya Bharat, were dissolved. The SRC also abolished the distinction between Part A, B and C states, a colonial constitutional legacy, and introduced uniformity in federal arrangements. Yet another legacy, the office of the Rajpramukh, a constitutional device to assuage the former princes, was done away with. Finally, six Union Territories, including Delhi, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Manipur and Tripura, were constituted.
Clearly, there were limits to the SRC’s achievements: zonal councils instituted by it remained weak and ineffectual, as states continued to squabble over territory and water-sharing. Cooperative federalism remained more as an ideal and less as a feature of governance. Then, there were the legacy hotspots. Of these, the most contentious was the bilingual Bombay state, made up of Marathi and Gujarati speakers, both making trenchant claims over Bombay city. This unhappy union had a fraught, short-lived existence, marked by frequent rioting, between 1956 and 1960, when a bifurcation between Maharashtra and Gujarat led to a parting of ways.
Punjab was yet another legacy hotspot where the Akalis had agitated for a Punjabi suba, a demand spurned by the SRC in the 1950s due to its communal overtones. However, a decade later, two key changes had changed the situation. Indira Gandhi, now at the helm and the Centre, was anxious to assuage popular sentiments in the Punjab, a border state, in the wake of the 1965 war with Pakistan. The new context helped bring about the bifurcation of Punjab with its Hindi-speaking districts being constituted into Haryana, while giving the Sikhs a sense of autonomy over their homeland.
As one reflects upon events, which took place 60 and 50 years ago respectively, and which critically shaped the Republic, it is rather sad to notice the bickering, contention, short-sightedness and partisanship which continue to mark the still unfolding bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Yet another example of our utter disregard for history and the refusal to learn from its repeating patterns and cycles.
(Gyanesh Kudaisya teaches contemporary South Asian history at the National University of Singapore. His most recent book, A Republic in the Making: India in the 1950s, will be published in early 2017.)