India’s lower house passes bill to create 29th state

Ellen Barry
Telangana supporters celebrate after the separate Telangana State bill was passed in Parliament on February 18, 2014 in New Delhi, India.
Mohd Zakir | Hindustan Times | Getty Images

Few questions in Indian politics have generated as much raw emotion, pro and con, as the proposed creation of Telangana, a 29th state, out of an inland slice of south India largely covered with cornfields and rice paddies.

Passion over the issue has driven hundreds of young people to suicide, inspired hunger strikes, and, just last week, prompted a member of India's Parliament opposed to Telangana to unload a can of pepper spray on his fellow lawmakers.

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After more than 40 years of dispute, a bill on Telangana finally reached the lower house on Tuesday afternoon, and was passed unanimously. Critics said the burst of progress was driven by major political parties, hoping to consolidate regional support before general elections in May.

More than a dozen lawmakers, all opposed to the new state, were excluded from the vote for disciplinary reasons after the pepper spray incident.

The vote set off delirious celebrations among Telangana's supporters and protests among its opponents. Jayaprakash Narayan, a legislator from Andhra Pradesh State, which would be divided to create Telangana, said the process had created deep divisions that would take years to heal.

"This is a classic case of how not to create a new state in a very large, diverse federal country," Mr. Narayan said in a telephone interview from Hyderabad. "I am sure that in the years to come in political science faculties, people will study how terribly this was bungled. You cannot create, in a large, federalist country with primordial loyalties, a group of winners and a much larger group of losers."

When India won independence in 1947, giant states were created along linguistic lines. As the country's population ballooned, so did identity-based movements based on religion, caste, region and ethnicity. Three new states were created in 2000, bringing the total to 28 states and seven territories, and the governing Indian National Congress party promised to create a commission to review existing borders, though it never materialized.

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The Telangana initiative made it clear how divisive such movements are. While residents of the inland part of Andhra Pradesh desperately wanted statehood, the state's remaining population opposed it with equal passion. One reason is that both groups want the revenue from the state's booming capital city, Hyderabad, a major technology hub and host to multinationals like Dell and Motorola.

If the bill is passed by the upper house, Hyderabad will remain the capital of both states for 10 years.

The Congress party is likely to benefit from the gratitude of politicians who favored the new state, and critics described the sudden passage of the bill as a cynical bid for votes. But that was of little concern for supporters, who danced in the streets of Hyderabad, surrounded by the pink banners of the main pro-statehood party.

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Bulli Konda Ramulu, 45, had stripped down to a loincloth, pink slogans scrawled across his body.

"Our first step to a golden future has been taken," he shouted, trying to make himself heard above beating drums. He heaped praise on K. Chandrasekhar Rao, a politician made famous by his 16-day hunger strike in favor of Telangana. "K.C.R. is our god, Sonia Gandhi is our goddess," he said, referring to the president of the Congress party. "I worship them."

Manmohan Reddy, 24, said the real celebrations would begin on Wednesday, when Congress's leaders returned to their home districts. "Today, we are just happy roaming on the road, shouting slogans," he said. "We are happy. We are free. At last."

Amid the happy crowds were people from Seemandhra, the coastal region where most have opposed the new state's creation. As they made their way home from work, some looked shellshocked.

"In less than 25 minutes, Parliament, without a debate, passed a law to divide our state," said Rama Rao, 36. "We have fears. We are shocked."

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Moments before the vote, as the authorities braced for unrest, the live television feed from Parliament went dead, further fueling complaints that the process had not been transparent or democratic. Officials said the blackout had been caused by technical problems.

Leaders from Seemandhra declared a statewide strike beginning Wednesday morning, and pointed to the television blackout as evidence that the vote had been deeply flawed.

"Today, democracy has come to a standstill," said Dinesh Trivedi, a member of Parliament who opposed the creation of a new state. "When you take away the right to democracy, I have no business remaining in the house. The spirit of democracy has been killed."

Mr. Narayan said he had long expected the formation of a new state, but had hoped to see efforts to "assuage the feelings of all regions." Now, he added, "you have glee and celebration in one-third of the state, and you have a deep sense of grief — grief is the only word I can use — in 60 percent of the state, and in 10 percent of the state, you have a lot of disquiet and anxiety and unease."