The nod for Telangana has predictably reignited the bushfires for several other smaller states, with fresh voices emanating from Vidarbha, the original claimant for statehood. The issue has shuffled back and forth on politicians’ agenda depending on their fortunes— most of them, when out of power, root for statehood to the region that covers nearly 32 per cent area and 21 per cent of Maharashtra’s population.
There is an historical paradox about the region. The Marathi name for Vidarbha is Varhad which the British corrupted to Berar. Ironically, the present Amravati division, formerly known as Berar, was administered by the Nizam of Hyderabad (now largely Telangana) until 1853 when the British cited mis-governance by the Nizam and took direct control over the province. Berar was ceded to the Central Provinces in 1903. The Central Provinces itself had come into existence in 1861 with the merger of the Saugor and Nerbudda Territories and Nagpur province (after the defeat in the Anglo-Maratha war 1818, the Bhonsle dominion shrank to the Nagpur division and came under the British Raj in 1853).
Post-Independence, CP and Berar came to be known as Madhya Pradesh with Nagpur as its capital. With the linguistic reorganisation in 1956, the new Madhya Pradesh was formed and its capital shifted to Bhopal. The Nagpur region and the rest of Vidarbha (Berar) were transferred to the bilingual Bombay state. In 1960 the Bombay state was split into Maharashtra and Gujarat. The then leaders of Vidharbha and Western Maharashtra had entered into an agreement known as the Akola Pact for formation of a federal state in 1952. This was also reiterated in the "Nagpur act" of 1953.
Ironically the idea of linguistic reorganisation was floated in Nagpur itself during the 1920 session of the Congress. While Maharashtra was conceived much later, Vidarbha was always part of the reorganisation scheme. The States Re-organisation Commission headed by Fazal Ali had recommended the formation of Vidarbha as a separate state in 1953 specifying that its merger in Maharashtra would stunt its growth.
The Akola Pact was perhaps the most practical solution to the issue. As a follow up on August 8, 1948 the leaders involved in the pact suggested two separate sub-states with assemblies, ministries and high courts, with one governor and one public service commission. Significantly, the pact had a concluding clause : in the eventuality of such a state failing to materialise Vidarbha could be formed as a separate state.
In 1948, the union government had set up the A K Dar commission which also recommended the formation of separate Vidarbha and Maharashtra states. The commission had insisted that administrative convenience should be the main purpose of the reorganisation. The Congress later formed a review committee to study the Dar commission’s report with Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramiyah as its members. The JVP committee concluded that the decision should be taken by the local people. That decision is still pending.
If violence is a measure of a movement’s success, Vidarbha should have got precedence over Telangana since the 1970s. It meets all parameters of statehood—administrative convenience, viability, aspirational and growth demands and historical identity.
In 1971, Jambuwantrao Dhote undertook a 21-day fast for the statehood. The region witnessed large-scale violence. Dhote became a cult figure and his Mahavidarbha Samiti won three Lok Sabha and 18 Assembly seats in the region against the Congress, Bharatiya Jan Sangh and Republican Party of India. Dhote is all but forgotten since he did little to promote the cause. His eccentricities took him to different parties including Shiv Sena that has always opposed bifurcation of Maharashtra.
Dhote got used by politicians of diverse interests. Vasantrao Naik, one of Maharashtra’s most powerful chief ministers who hailed from Vidarbha’s Yavatmal district, kept his rival Y B Chavan at bay with Dhote’s help. Naik kept drifting on the demand for Vidarbha. As his political disciple PV Narsimharao was to reveal later, Naik found a solution to every problem in indecision.
Even the Vajpayee-led NDA government that created three smaller states overlooked Vidarbha’s case due to strong opposition from its ally Shiv Sena.
Vidarbha has its distinct cultural and historical background. It holds two-thirds of Maharashtra’s mineral resources and three quarters of its forest resources. With two big thermal plants the region supplies the rest of Maharashtra bulk of its power. Of over 32,000 farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra over the past ten years, 70 per cent have been reported from the 11 districts of Vidarbha.
When the statehood for Telangana got the centre’s nod in 2010 Vidarbha Rajya Sangram Samiti gave a fresh momentum to statehood campaign. Almost all parties, barring Shiv Sena, and Maharashtra Navanirman Sena came under the Samiti. This is when each party reassessed its stakes in the movement. Given the strong Dalit presence in Vidarbha, most factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI) came together under the leadership of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash. The Dalit population in Maharashtra is 16 per cent while its percentage in Vidarbha is 21. If the state is carved out, the RPI hopes to play a major role in the government formation. No wonder then if Ms Mayawati has also pulled her fishing rod out.
The Congress, which has protested the most for Vidarbha, saw the initiative slipping into the hands of RPI. Vilasrao Muttemvar who was relieved from the union ministry also decided to revive the demand for the state. The BJP led by Nagpur’s own Nitin Gadkari also nurtures hopes to taste power, should the state ever be formed. Shiv Sena that has stuck to its opposition to Vidarbha argues that stalwarts like PV Narasimharao, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Vasant Sathe were elected from the region and could have done enough for the region.
Sharad Pawar, who had earlier opposed Vidarbha to keep his flock together against the Shiv Sena, now says his party would accept the public opinion. His trusted lieutenant, Praful Patel is from prosperous Gondia district and can be a chief ministerial candidate if equations favour NCP. But so discredited are the politicians that they would perhaps need a non-politician to lead them. Which is perhaps why senior Congress leader and former MP Naresh Puglia now wants social worker and Magsaysay awardee Dr Prakash Amte to lead the agitation for a separate Vidarbha.
Puglia says top pro-Vidarbha leaders from Congress, BJP and NCP have agreed to work together under the leadership of Amte for the creation of a separate state. According to him, pro-Vidarbha leaders are to meet within a week at Nagpur to chalk out a strategy for a fresh agitation. Puglia has also forwarded a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi reminding her that four years ago she had promised that when the party took a call on Telangana, it would consider the issue of Vidarbha.
Noted economist SV Khandewale says Vidarbha and Konkan share almost the entire forest cover of the state and the central grant to Maharashtra for the upkeep of forests is actually used in other regions. The same happens with the mineral resources of the state. Almost entire mineral resources are found in Vidarbha and Konkan and western Maharashtra rakes in all the advantage,” says Khandewale.
The argument is simple: if Vidarbha can sustain western Maharashtra, why can’t it be expected to sustain itself?
Chandrakant Naidu is a senior senior journalist who has worked with the Free Press Journal, Indian Express and Hindustan Times