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The Formation Of Linguistic States – Upholding Diversity Or Engendering Division?

Guest Article

Image Credits: The Hindustan Times

At the stroke of the midnight hour, as India attained Independence from the British Raj, Swaraj or self-rule was the only silver lining while the country dwelled into the horrors of partition. Swaraj came with its own challenges. Prudent decision-making to address problems of national integration seemed a high priority. The question of the reorganization of provinces based on linguistic lines challenged the makers of Modern India. While the integration of these newly formed states saw a series of major uprisings and violence all across the country, little thought was ever given to the decision itself. At the outset of India celebrating her 75 years of Independence from the British rule, it is critical to re-evaluate this grand old policy that has shaped the political boundaries of India as we know her today irrevocably!

The demarcation of Indian states on linguistic lines had been a hotly debated issue, majorly in the 1950s. But the seeds for the issue had been sown much before that, as early as 1917 the Congress had resolved to create linguistic provinces in free India. Following the same, in the Nagpur Session of 1920, for the first time, Provincial Congress Committees (PCCs) were organised on a linguistic basis. As Gandhi assumed the leadership of Congress, through his Swaraj Scheme of 1924 he asserted that “There should be re-distribution of provinces on a linguistic basis with as complete autonomy as possible for every province for its internal administration and growth.” In the 1928 Congress Resolution led by Motilal Nehru, the eighty-sixth point regarding ‘New Provinces’ officially envisaged the redistribution of the provinces on a linguistic basis. Afterwards, it took almost three decades for the Nehru-Gandhi dream of linguistic redistribution of provinces to take shape.

In the present article, we look at the issue of the formation of linguistic states purely through the political lens, given that this issue is politicised to date. The views on the creation of linguistic provinces differ widely. Some find the idea divisive, endangering the unity of the country; while others are of the view that the creation of linguistic provinces would help unify the different cultures of the country. Until 1937, Nehru too was highly appreciative of the idea but a decade later, with the partition of the country, the creation of linguistic states became a question of concern. Hence, Nehru became reluctant to take any hastened decision and shared the support of Vallabhbhai Patel and C. Rajagopalachari in the matter. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of India submitted a detailed memorandum to the States Reorganisation Commission in June 1954, advocating the formation of linguistic states. On the other hand, the RSS supremo M.S. Golwalkar in May 1954, spoke at the Anti–Provincial Conference held in Bombay that the demand for linguistic states is a manifestation of ‘the menace of provincialism and sectionalism’.

On 25th January 1948, after a period of almost thirty years, Gandhi again raised the issue of linguistic states. Several party members now aspired for a province of their own language, which led to the formation of the ‘JVP Committee. It was a three-member committee led by Nehru, Patel and the party historian and former Congress President, Pattabhi Sitaramayya. The objective of the committee was to draw a consensus amongst the party members to withdraw the idea of separate linguistic states but the committee proved to be a huge failure. Starting from 1948, several movements and campaigns emerged demanding linguistic autonomy. The most belligerent amongst them was the movement for the Andhra state intensely led by Potti Sriramulu, a Gandhian in practice, who began a fast unto death in Madras on 19th October 1952. Potti Sriramulu, famously known as the ‘Founding Father’ of Andhra Pradesh, championed the cause of linguistic liberation for many Indian states. His revolution left a huge impact on the geography of independent India, which led to the wholesale redrawing of the Indian map on linguistic lines. Sriramulu first met Gandhi during the Dandi march, until then he had lost his family and had decided to leave for Sabarmati Ashram by 1930. Over the next two decades, Sriramulu dedicated all his time serving the Gandhian ideology of ‘finding the self by diving into the service of others' and had won the affection of Gandhi. In 1952, as Sriramulu began his fast-unto-death, the Congress government led by Nehru decided to remain totally unmoved by his actions. By then, it had already been six weeks since Sriramulu hadn’t eaten a grain and people soon began to mobilize in large numbers in his support. Hartals were called in many towns and slogans were being raised against Rajagopalachari and Nehru. Forced to recognize the popular sentiment, Nehru wrote to Rajaji on the 12th of December to accept the Andhra demand. By the time the news could reach the public, Sriramulu died on 15th December, fifty-eight days into his fast. His death plunged entire Andhra into chaos. State property was damaged heavily and several protestors were killed in police firings. It was only two days later of his death that an official statement was made declaring the formation of the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Image Credits: Current Affairs Review

In order to truly analyse the problem with linguistic states, it is imperative to consider the time and circumstances under which the idea was offered. India had just faced a major partition and hence it was critical for the Indian political parlance to believe in the principle of one nation – one culture. It was also a time when any decision taken then were to shape the future of modern India for centuries to come. With the creation of the state of Andhra Pradesh in October 1953, a wave of mass agitations erupted which led to the formation of the States Reorganisation Commission. The report of the Commission was submitted in October 1955, the immediate consequences of which led to widespread rioting and violence in Orissa, Bengal, Bihar, Bombay, Ahmedabad and Punjab. This unrest continues to this day in one form or the other.

Seventy - five years through independence and today it can be said with testimony that the creation of linguistic states, led to the creation of yet another fault line in the integrity of India. India continues to witness a long series of language wars among and within the States, and the politicians leave no stone unturned to polarise the situation further. The objective behind the formation of linguistic states was to give space to the linguistic diversity of the country but it has rather ended up creating linguistic minorities in every State who find their existence being threatened by the majority linguistic group. The homogenisation and standardisation of languages in these States has led to linguistic and cultural inequality which directly affects the participation of the diverse groups in the governance. This in turn, has given the politicians the opportunity to exploit the present dichotomy to their benefits in electoral politics. Thus, defeating its main objective, the creation of linguistic states has instead paved the way for opportunistic identity politics. Today, the Telugu – speaking population of the country revere Sriramulu as the ‘Amarajeevi’ or the immortal being, perhaps eternalising the divisive tendencies amongst the masses.

It cannot be denied that the redistribution of provinces on linguistic lines helped ease the process of administration to some extent, but in the light of the above arguments, the serious repercussions of the decision majorly in the political arena cannot be neglected. Gandhi believed that organising the people into homogenous and autonomous units would ensure their full participation in the freedom struggle. Gandhi’s intentions might have been noble however, his belief came with an inherent fault line that aroused a sense of superiority amongst the speakers of different languages. The recent birth of the State of Telangana on 2nd June, 2014 as a separate geographical and political entity is in conformity to the presence of such divisive forces to this day. It would only be fair to quote the independent scholar and author Sandeep Balakrishna, who writes, “we have reached a stage where almost every state has become a war zone, and the divisive states of India are waging an unhinged, all-out war against the Indian Union.” With several such Indian experiences, one can say that the creation of linguistic states is a historical blunder that can not be reversed. It has left a permanent mark on the fundamental unity of our country and it’s time India re-evaluates this schismatic trend before it splinters into pieces. Since the inception of humanity on this piece of land, India has developed some of the richest, most scientific and most expressive languages in the world. India’s languages have helped form India’s national identity. Multilinguism is a unique and inherent feature of India and is a necessity, to conserve its linguistic and cultural diversity. The story of 21st-century India must reflect a story of a multilingual India that is more inclusive, more creative and more innovative; where the chances of socio-economic development for all and political stability strengthen the spirit of democracy.


By Mrinal Rai

Mrinal Rai is a third-year undergraduate student pursuing B.A. Programme in History and Political Science from Ramjas College, University of Delhi. She is an avid reader and carries deep interests in the field of political science, especially intrigued by Indian political theories. She is a proponent of decoloniality and wishes to bring about more scholarly work in that field, in the context of India. She began her journey of writing through a blog site called ‘Critically Optimist’. In her second year, she initiated and helped establish an academic circle in Ramjas called the YUVA [Youth United for Vision and Action]. She is passionate about music and prefers playing her guitar or writing songs in her leisure time.

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Guha, Ramchandra. India After Gandhi. Picador India, 2007.<