Analysis: Separatist movement in India grows bloodier

BANGALORE, India — In recent months Hyderabad, a booming technology center in southeastern India, has turned into a violent battle zone and the chief bone of dispute over the creation of a separate Indian state called Telangana.

Those fighting for Telangana have proposed a boundary that includes Hyderabad, a modern, thriving Indian city. The city is home to large facilities of multinationals such as Google, Oracle, Dell and Microsoft.

Hyderabad, an example of the country’s recent economic success, is currently the capital of the existing Andhra Pradesh state. Some 6 million of its residents are now caught in the crossfire, as mobs have burned buses, and attacked offices and malls in the city.

Regionalism has long been the bane of a vast and populous India where development has been in spells and bursts and progress, therefore, largely uneven. “Economic reasons dominate in the demand for creating new states,” says Supriya Roy Chowdhury, a professor at Bangalore’s Institute for Social and Economic Change.

The Manmohan Singh government in New Delhi is facing deep censure for its sudden decision to cave in to pressure tactics by giving in to demands for the creation of a new state. The leader of the separatist Telangana movement had gone on a Mahatma Gandhi-like fast-unto-death. After 11 days the New Delhi government feared for his life.

But the government’s appeasement tactic may backfire and open the proverbial Pandora’s Box. At least six separatist groups across India are now demanding the creation of new states.

In the last few years, Hyderabad has been trying hard to play catch-up with its neighbor Bangalore, India’s technology hub. Hyderabad’s gleaming modern airport and new flyovers and expressways have changed the face of the city.

But the city has faced a series of setbacks recently. The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu, in whose time the city was christened “Cyberabad” because of its hi-tech progress and aggressive investment-seeking tactics abroad, was defeated soundly in an election.

Then, Ramalinga Raju, the high-profile founder-chairman of the city’s iconic outsourcing firm called Satyam Computer was jailed and is being tried for a fraud running into billions of dollars.

To make matters worse, the recent violence has only diminished Hyderabad’s brand value. “There are apprehensions that investors will flee the city but this will be only a short-term concern,” says Amarnath Menon, a veteran Hyderabad-based journalist.

Lawmakers and citizens in Andhra Pradesh are very much divided over the formation of Telangana. Two-thirds of the assembly is required to vote to pass the resolution for creating a new Telangana. But half of the these threatened to resign.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party, which rules in Delhi, also runs the Andhra Pradesh government with a majority in the state assembly. Even the Congress Party’s own lawmakers are now opposing the carving out of Telangana.

At the root of the problem is the contrast between the flourishing Hyderabad, and the underdeveloped and drought-prone Telangana. The demand for a separate state and fair treatment dates back several decades.

Meanwhile, separatist movements demanding the breakup of existing regions into at least half-dozen more states are rearing up in different corners of India. In India’s tea-producing hills of Darjeeling, a movement for a separate state called Gorkhaland has suddenly received a fresh lease of life.

Other movements such as the Bodoland movement in the northeastern Assam state and the Vidharba movement in central Maharashtra state have also been revived. In the desert state of Rajasthan in the west, some of its residents are demanding a new state of Maru Pradesh.

But India’s original federalization process, by which the country was sliced into states along linguistic lines for better administration, has served it well. In fact, as recently as the year 2000, three new states were formed in northern India to take the total states up to 28.

Yet, there is the increasing feeling in parts of India that more slicing and dicing is necessary to make up for years of neglect. These regions trail in development indices when compared to the neighboring districts or even the national average.

Experts feel that smaller states are easier to administer. Political representation is ensured. Capital and resources can be spread more evenly to ensure development.

Regional movements are on the rise but there is no danger that India will disintegrate as a country, says Roy Chowdhury.

The process is obviously fraught with dangers. As in the case of Hyderabad, sharing large assets such as a well-developed city or river water could be a source of violence and conflict.