The Birth Pangs of India’s Linguistic States

By P. K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 11 2022
Columns The Birth Pangs of India’s  Linguistic States

By P. K. Balachandran

India is divided into States based on the language predominantly spoken in an area. The Union of such “linguistic States”has been stable since its formation 66 years ago, disproving the prophets of doom, who included the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. But the birth of the linguistic States was by no means smooth. The issue was marked by heated debate at all levels, street agitations, ugly rioting in Bombay, and a ‘fast unto death’ in Madras. 

The dawn of freedom (from British rule) in 1947 had strengthened pan-Indian nationalism, assiduously nurtured by the leaders of the freedom struggle over decades. But freedom from British rule also triggered pride in one native language, one’s distinctive culture, ethos and pride. This meant the invigoration of at least 16 major sub-nationalisms.  There was also a strong yearning for a political arrangement wherein these distinctive sentiments and ambitions would find expression. 

Given the geographical consistencies in the distribution of linguistic groups in India, many viewed the formation of linguistic States as a viable possibility. But others viewed it with alarm, because, at its very birth, India had been divided on grounds of religion, into a Hindu-majority ‘India’ and a Muslim-majority ‘Pakistan’. Top leaders like Nehru were apprehensive about dividing the new born India further into linguistic States for fear of Balkanizing it.

The saga of the formation of linguistic States is narrated by Ramachandra Guha in his tome entitled: India After Gandhi (Picador 2008). He points out that the foundation for the linguistic States was laid by the Congress Party during the freedom struggle itself when party units were formed on “linguistic-region” basis. For example, the Congress Party in the multi-lingual Province of Madras was divided into the Tamil Nadu Congress, Andhra Pradesh Congress and the Karnataka Congress. 

The idea was to enable party units to communicate with the masses easily. Nehru sanctioned this, aware as he was, of the emotional appeal of language and its role in development. “It is axiomatic that the masses can only grow educationally and culturally through the medium of their own language,” Nehru said in 1937. 

But in 1947, in the context of the partition of India on Hindu-Muslim lines, Nehru felt that dividing India on a linguistic basis was a recipe for disaster. The country had to be held together by all means, he told the Constituent Assembly, which was drawing up a constitution for independent India. Nehru convinced Gandhi of his stand, who any way favoured a ‘one step at a time’ approach. 

India was facing three other critical issues immediately after the partition of India:  the assassination of Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic in 1948, efforts of some Princely States to declare independence, and the attack on Kashmir by Pakistan army-led irregular troops. Therefore, any thought of linguistic States had to be banished.

However, pressure to form linguistic States was being mounted in the Constituent Assembly drafting India’s constitution. The Government appointed an expert committee to examine the issue. But to the dismay of many, the committee went against the linguistic State concept. The Gujarati, Marathi and Telugu-speaking members of the Assembly, who wanted the division of Bombay and Madras Provinces, were incensed. 

The Samyukta Karanataka Movement wanted the Kannada-speaking regions of the Bombay Presidency to be hived off and joined to Mysore and a Karnataka State formed. The Samyukta Maharashtra Movement wanted Bombay to be divided to form a Marathi-speaking Maharashtra State. The Malayalis demanded the separation of Malayalam-speaking areas of Madras and the integration of the Princely States of Travancore and Cochin to form a Malayalam-speaking Kerala State. Some Sikhs of the Punjab, led by Master Tara Singh, demanded a Punjabi-speaking, independent Sikh country.  

Denial of these demands by the Constituent Assembly led to deep resentment which took the form of agitations. To quell the clamour for linguistic States in the Congress Party itself, Nehru formed a party committee. But this recommended that “every separatist and disruptive tendency should be rigorously discouraged”. This set the stage for more agitations.

Andhra Movement

However, the agitation of Telugu speakers in Madras bought about a sea change in the thinking of Nehru, the Congress Party and the Central Government in New Delhi. One of the tallest leaders of the Congress in Madras and a Telugu-speaker and the then Chief Minister, T. Prakasam, resigned from the party in 1950 on this issue and started a movement to bifurcate Madras to form a Telugu-speaking Andhra State. The movement resulted in the Congress’ losing badly in the Telugu-speaking constituencies in the Madras Assembly. The Congress won only 43 out of the 145 Telugu seats.

Slightly mellowed by the Election defeat, Nehru said: “When the right time comes, let us have them (linguistic States) by all means.” However, the Telugu-speakers found Nehru’s assurance too vague. “What is the right time?” they asked. To press Nehru for a decision here and now, a Congressman, freedom fighter and Gandhi’s follower, Potti Sriramulu, went on a ‘fast unto death’ on 19 October 1952. With the Madras Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari and Prime Minister Nehru being unresponsive to the fast, agitations broke out all over the Telugu-speaking areas of Madras. Still unmoved, Nehru wrote to Rajagopalachari saying that he proposed to ‘ignore the fast’. 

But Sriramulu died on 15 December 1952 on the 58th day of the fast. ‘Now all hell broke loose,’ remarks RamachandraGuha. Government offices were attacked and several persons were injured in police firing. The Government then felt constrained to give in and a separate Andhra State was formed on 1 October 1953. Fearing further divisions, Nehru said: “We have disturbed the hornet’s nest and I believe most of us are likely to be stung.”

States Reorganisation Commission

Nevertheless, reading the writing on the wall, Nehru appointed a States Reorganisation Commission comprising independent, non-Congress persons. After examining 152,250 written submissions and listening to 9,000 oral submissions, the commission said that “linguistic homogeneity is conducive to administrative convenience and efficiency.” 

But it rejected the demand for an independent Sikh State and also to the division of Bombay into a Marathi-speaking Maharashtra and a Gujarati-speaking Gujarat. The concept of letting Bombay city be a separate entity being a cosmopolitan city was also not entertained, despite heavy lobbying by the top corporate houses like the Tatas.

But the thirst for a separate Marathi-speaking Maharashtra was intense across the political spectrum among the Marathi-speakers. Both the right wing and the left wing, upper castes and the lowest castes joined in the agitation for ‘Samyukta Maharashtra’. On January 16, 1955, police rounded up all the leaders of the Samyuta Maharashtra All Party Action Committee and 400 others. Effigies of Nehru and the Gujarati-speaking Chief Minister of Bombay, Morarji Desai, were burnt. 

Shops were looted and Government offices attacked. The police opened fire at several places. Top Marathi leader N. V. Gadgil likened the police repression to the shooting down of hundreds of peaceful civilians by the British Colonel Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in 1919. Gadgil said that the actions of Nehru and Desai had resulted in the “complete alienation of Maharashtrian people from the Congress and the Government of India.”

In June 1956, when the annual session of the Congress Party was held in Bombay, Nehru was met with black flags. Participants were stoned and the police had to use tear gas to disperse the mob. To add to Nehru’s woes, his Finance Minister, the Marathi-speaking C. D. Deshmukh, resigned from the cabinet on the issue.

On 1 November 1956, linguistic States were formed as per the States Reorganisation Commission’s recommendations. But Bombay State was left untouched. Therefore, the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and the Gujarat Movement had to continue their fight. Four years later, on 1 May 1960, after losing 107 lives, a Marathi-speaking Maharashtra and a Gujarati-speaking Gujarat were formed out of Bombay State. Bombay city was included in Maharashtra, protests from the Gujaratis notwithstanding. 

By P. K. Balachandran | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 11 2022

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