India's ruling Congress party approved a resolution Tuesday to create a new state in the southeast amid fears the decision could spark violence in the region which includes IT hub Hyderabad.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and other senior party leaders agreed to grant longstanding demands for the state of Telangana to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh state.
"A resolution was passed in the meeting where it was resolved to request the central government to take steps to form a separate state of Telangana," Congress spokesman Ajay Maken said.
The resolution was cleared "after taking into account the chequered history of the demand for a separate state of Telangana since 1956," Maken told a news conference in New Delhi.
The Congress move must still be approved by parliament but the new state's creation has the backing of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has accused the government of "dilly-dallying" on the issue.
The planned state, which would be India's 29th, would be created out of an impoverished, drought-prone mainly tribal belt that supporters say has been neglected by successive Andhra Pradesh governments.
But Andhra Pradesh's wealthier regions are strongly opposed to the move.
Critics said New Delhi risked opening a "Pandora's box" of demands for statehood by other regional groups in ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse India, which also has a host of separatist movements.
"The message being sent out is 'you agitate for some years and you can have your own state'," said K.G. Suresh, a fellow at Delhi-based think-tank, Vivekanand International Foundation.
"Creation of Telangana state will open a Pandora's box," Suresh told AFP.
The Telangana issue, the source of frequent clashes between protesters and police since 2009, has led security forces to be put on alert in Hyderabad, which is home to tech firms including Facebook and Google.
"We have sent 1,000 extra paramilitary forces to Andhra Pradesh today to maintain law and order in the state," home ministry spokesman Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia told AFP.
In 2009, the then-home minister P. Chidambaram promised Telangana supporters that the government would finally bow to their campaign after a hunger strike by a regional leader and violent protests by students.
Andhra Pradesh, formed in 1956, is India's fifth largest state in terms of territory and sends 42 MPs to India's 543-member parliament.
The Congress party, which is hoping for a third straight term in office, swept most of the seats in 2009 national elections.
Experts say the division of the region, with Hyderabad set to serve as joint capital for a decade, is a gamble by Congress as it tries to boost its electoral fortunes in a key state in general elections slated for next year.
India last redrew its internal boundaries in 2000, with the creation of three new states in economically deprived areas in the northern half of the country.
Now "there will be separate (statehood) demands from other groups," Vivekanand International Foundation's Suresh said.
Among the first in line, analysts say, would be a tea-growing area of West Bengal where ethnic Nepalis have waged a long and sometimes violent campaign for a state called Gorkhaland.