In Indian politics, both politicians and academics believed until recent times that regional assertions pose a threat to national unity and integrity. Hence the struggle for regional autonomy was not considered as an issue for deliberation. The focus was on the strategies to defeat regional assertions and efface regional identities in the name of national integration. However, emerging perspectives now argue that the study of regional identity holds a key to understanding the dynamics of power relations between regions, states and the Centre.
Federal units, known as states in India are the units around which socio-political life revolves, changing the balance of power between various forces and institutions both within and with other units and the center. These institutions are predicated on an ensemble of power relations which determine the allocation of resources. So long as the hegemony remains intact the boundaries of power relations are not questioned. In states where the dominant groups use regional identities to sustain their hegemony, contradiction between the dominant sections and the subordinate groups takes the form of regional assertion.
Telangana is one such region where the struggle against the dominant classes is articulated through the demand for statehood. Telangana was a part of the Hyderabad State ruled by the Nizams for centuries. In 1948 it was integrated into the Indian Union following a movement against the feudal system and a demand for integration with the Indian Union. This led to an armed action by the central government- “police action”- and the Hyderabad State was integrated into the Indian Union. Later it was united with Andhra state in 1956 to form Andhra Pradesh. At the time of the merger Telangana was guaranteed certain safeguards which gave it certain entitlements. The survival of the integrated Andhra Pradesh depended on the implementation of the safeguards guaranteed to the Telangana people. The failure to honour the Gentlemen Agreement by the leaders of Andhra Pradesh led to great dissatisfaction among the people of Telangana. These circumstances gave rise to the 1969 movement for a separate state of Telangana. This did not succeed for various political reasons. After a lapse of nearly thirty years, the movement picked up once again in the 1990s.
However the 1990s phase of the movement has its own specificity. It may be noted that this phase of the movement for a separate state had its origin in the wake of major social changes initiated by government policies and social movements in the region in the 1970s and 80s. The anti-poverty programs adopted by Mrs. Indira Gandhi empowered the weaker sections of society. Among the anti-poverty programs, two are worth mentioning. The first is the land distribution program. Nearly 42 lakh acres of land were distributed till 1991. Though the land distributed was insufficient to meet the needs of the landless and poor farmers, it gave them strength to assert freedom from the landlords. In addition, the government has initiated bonded labour abolition scheme. Under the scheme nearly 20,000 bonded labourers were liberated. It is in these circumstances that the landless poor, small peasants fought against the landlords. All these developments led to the decline of the power of the landed elite. The socio-political processes that evolved since the late seventies gave an identity to backward castes, scheduled tribes and scheduled castes of the Telangana region, which enabled them to become a political force to reckon with.
However, the State never responded to the needs of the marginalized groups as the institutions were controlled by the propertied classes of the Andhra region. The socio-political processes that evolved since the late sixties, triggered by the green revolution enabled the propertied classes from Coastal Andhra to become a political force in the State politics. This explains the conflict between marginalized sections of the Telangana region and the State controlled by the Andhra elite. The marginalized groups of Telangana became a major force in the movement for a separate Telangana state.
The movement for statehood was not fed by hatred towards the people living in the other regions. The struggle was triggered by the fact that the entire socio-economic arena was dominated by a few vested interests from the Andhra region. As the Sri Krishna Committee noted “Telangana feels dominated by the upper castes of these regions (Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra) and its struggle is primarily to shake off their yoke.” The struggle for Telangana state was a struggle for democracy and empowerment. The long drawn out struggle ended with the declaration of Telangana as a separate State by the UPA in the year 2013.
The present situation in Telangana has to be examined in the light of the struggle for autonomy. The movement led to the expansion of democratic space in Telangana. People are aware of their rights and they are organized. However the political regime is not able to represent the aspirations of the movement. In the context of a mismatch between the values evolved by the movement and the political realm, people are losing trust in the government. During the course of the movement the civil society groups were in a position to influence the political society. The question is whether civil society groups can effect changes in the politics of the Telangana state now. Civil society is trying to define its role in the emerging situation keeping in mind the past experiences.
M. Kodanda Ram is chair of the all-party Telangana Political Joint Action Committee