“Be like a garland maker, O king; not like a charcoal burner.” --Mahabharata
[It asks the king to preserve and protect diversity, in a coherent way. The metaphor used is that of a garland, in which flowers of many colors and forms are strung together for a pleasing effect. The contrast is given against charcoal, which is the result of burning all kinds of wood and reducing diversity to homogeneous dead matter. The charcoal burner is reductionist and destroys diversity, whereas the garland maker celebrates diversity.]
Unification of Germany and Italy populated by similar people was achieved by huge armies spanning across decades. In sharp contrast, India under Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel managed to unite a much larger area divided by culture & languages within few years.
The European experience where new nations were carved over little differences in identity, made the Indian experiment appear poised for a breakup sooner than later. Yet, India managed to stay united though the journey was hampered by separatist movements like Tamil Nationalism, Khalistan, and Kashmir etc.
It is indeed a wonder that India has managed to stay united despite many differences. The masterstroke that ensured this was the decision to create linguistic states in 1956. This appears contradictory. How can division enable unity?
To understand this one must move beyond theoretical understanding that single-identity of being Indian is better than multi-layered identity. Since differences cause problems, some argue, we must suppress all identities except that of being Indian. [of course few post-modernist friends of mine argue further that we must forget all identities except being human. Well! ]
Yes, in an ideal world, this ought to be the norm. No discrimination should exist. Yet, we live in a world far removed from this utopia. Differences exist, and they’ll remain. Even if we’re able to eliminate one, another would be created. As I argued elsewhere, equality in theory translates to uniformity in practise.
Linguistic States fostered Federal Spirit
Telugu-speaking people in the former Madras Presidency were apprehensive about their representation in the combined state where Tamilians may dominate & sought separation on grounds of proportionate representation. Potti Sreeramulu, a Gandhian fasted to death forcing a vacillating Nehru to declare a separate state of Andhra in 1953. In 1956, the Telugu-speaking region of Hyderabad Nizam, Telangana, was merged with Andhra to form Andhra Pradesh.
Nehru felt that young India fresh from communal riots and partition cannot afford to encourage regionalism and instead a homogenous pan-Indian identity should be built by burning other identities. He wasn’t happy when circumstances forced him to declare the first linguistic state. However, with the benefit of hindsight we can safely conclude that his understanding was wrong and recognizing the heterogeneous identity of Indians in fact strengthened unity.
Had a Telugu state not been carved out of Madras Presidency, managing the people would have been a tumultuous affair frequently resulting in mass-scale tensions. Now that both are separated, each has its own identity well-represented and bears no ill-will against the other for they seldom cross paths.
To North Indian politicians of 1960s, making Hindi a national language was intended to unite India. However, they failed to note that while the move hardly affected them, to South Indians who barely knew Hindi it entailed a hardship of learning a new language and competing with others having home-turf advantage.
Creating linguistic states helped each state to officially patronize its language. People, now assured that their culture & language were secure, had no problem in learning other languages or appreciating other cultures out of their own free-will.
By accepting diversity instead of seeking to level it, India had indirectly strengthened the federal fabric of the nation and forestalled escalation of region-centric grievances into violent forms. Regional representation ensured that all genuine grievances are channelized through democratic means and addressed.
The force that unites India is not centripetal – that coerces regions. Instead, it is fear of centrifugal forces running amok throughout a nation weakened by divisions that nurtures goodwill for India.
Tamil Nationalism lost its impetus after the Indo-China war when they realized that they were securer under India than otherwise. Likewise once the radical elements of Khalistan movement were suppressed, the genuine grievances of Sikhs were addressed to considerable extent in India that detached the fuel from the movement.
This all-inclusive federal character is legacy of Hinduism to India. Hinduism comprises various traditions, each distinct, yet belonging to the commonwealth of Hindu religions. Likewise, India is populated by people of different cultures and traditions, all of whom are assured freedom to remain distinct while they are simultaneously absorbed in the assimilative nature of Indian identity.
Thus without armies to quell regional separatism constantly, India remained united in spirit as it recognized the need of different communities to retain their identity and did not attempt to homogenize it. Instead it allowed the heterogeneous composition of India to remain intact while weaving them together with Indian soul.
But problems remain?
Accepted, this hasn’t solved all problems. But the problems could have been greater otherwise. One may ask, if creating linguistic states was wise, how demand for smaller states like Telangana, Vidarbha are cropping up. This only proves that language alone may not be the deciding factor to match today’s complexity – moreover these demands were initially based on economic backwardness as against rest of the state; cultural imposition is not the principal grievance.
Granting genuine demands of separate states will not be detrimental to India; they’ll improve the representation of the region at national level, dissipate their resentment and reinforce their commitment to the Indian Union.