Past Continuous: How British Imperialism Influenced the Creation of Linguistic States

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

Although for the past few years, especially since the Narendra Modi government assumed office, other controversies have ensured that the demand for smaller states has not been raised as boisterously as in the past, the issue remains potentially volatile. It is also a heartening fact that in recent years, the basis of separate state agitations has been issues of regional underdevelopment stemming from political neglect and regional political aspirations not being addressed in larger states. However, there is no knowing when the divisive issue of linguistic principle for new states rears its ugly head in some region or the other.

Historically, in certain states, agitating groups periodically demanded separate smaller states by advancing cultural, economic, social or linguistic reasons to back their claims. Political parties too have manipulated the sentiment of the people by tapping into the ‘grievance syndrome’ – people tend to put the blame for their lack of development or limited growth opportunities on the door of a better-developed region of the state. While a part of this is due to regional imbalances which various governments have not addressed, the recurring nature of such demands has deep roots going back 160 years.

The year 1948 was a crucial year for newly independent India, and not just because of the dastardly assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, but also because of developments in Kashmir – on January 1, India went to the United Nations with its complaint of aggression against Pakistan. But more significantly, 70 years ago, an official commission appointed by the government of India took the brave step to argue against the principle of forming states on a linguistic basis because of its divisive potential.

When India attained independence, its internal boundaries were a myriad of complexities. As the States Reorganisation Commission put it, these internal ‘borders’ were also the “by-product of the historic process of the integration of former Indian states”. From the colonial period, successive governments found it tough to find a perfect way to demarcate one province from another or one administrative region from the other, and often opted for quick fixes – thereby creating lasting problems.

Numerous fault lines

When India became independent, there were numerous fault lines, most worryingly the communal divide which split not just the land, but also pit one community against the other. Besides the communal divide, people also were split on the issue of linguistic states. The demand for the formation of states on the basis of language rocked India as a demand arose for carving a separate Telugu-speaking state from the provinces of Madras, Bombay and central India.

Sensing that the issue was emotional and the idea of linguistic states was gaining currency, Jawaharlal Nehru was forthright in stating before the constituent assembly on November 27, 1947 that although the linguistic principle had to be kept in mind, “the first thing is the security and stability of India”. In the statement was an unstated admission – that while language had the capacity to unite people, it also had great potential to divide society. But in a country where the national identity was still coalescing after the colonial adversary handed over reins of power, people were looking for other identities that were formed on the basis of social kinship, caste, religion and language.

Consequently, the pressure on Nehru from groups in favour of linguistic states was immense. The government also had little leeway after the constituent assembly recommended the constitution of a Linguistic Provinces Commission. Headed by retired judge of the Allahabad high court S.K. Dar, in June 1948, it was soon joined by J.N. Lal, a lawyer, and Panna Lall, a retired Indian Civil Service officer.

Potti Sreeramulu, whose death pressured the government to set up the States Reorganisation Commission. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a matter of weeks, the commission had begun its work to enquire into and report “on the desirability of or otherwise of the creation of any of the proposed provinces of Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra and fixing their boundaries and assessing the financial, economic, administrative and other consequences in those provinces and the adjoining territories of India.” The second half of 1948 was expended in this commission’s work, which involved studying documents and interacting with select people and representatives of groups.

From the commission’s terms of reference, it was evident that “reconstitution of provinces solely on a linguistic basis was no longer taken for granted.” This was a significant step, but in effect reversed the stand the Congress party had maintained since 1920. However, the chief recommendation of the Dar Commission, that “formation of provinces exclusively or even mainly on linguistic considerations would be inadvisable”, opened the Pandora’s box.

The commission also made two very significant points that were validated by later developments. Firstly, Dar and his colleagues stated that “linguistic homogeneity in the formation of new provinces is certainly attainable within certain limits, but only at the cost of creating a fresh minority problem.”  Secondly, the Commission argued that “linguistic groups as sub-nations do not exist anywhere at present.”

A howl of protests

The report was met by a howl of protests from those advancing the argument for linguistic states. The protestors included a significant section within the Congress party. Deliberations at the party’s Jaipur session in December 1948 underscored the party’s democratic spirit but also resulted in formation of a high-powered committee, comprising three of the most influential party leaders – Nehru, Sardar Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. The JVP committee, which got its initials from the first name of its three members, stated at the outset: “When the Congress had given the seal of its approval to the general principle of linguistic provinces, it was not faced with the practical application of the principle and hence it had not considered all the implications and consequences that arose from this practical application.”

The JVP committee also emphatically stated that “the primary, consideration must be the security, unity and economic prosperity of India and every separatist and disruptive tendency should be rigorously discouraged”, besides adding that “language was not only a binding force but also a separating one.” In summation, the committee declared that the “old Congress policy” of linguistic provinces could only be applied after careful consideration of each separate case and “without creating serious administrative dislocation or mutual conflicts which would jeopardise the political and economic stability.”

Yet, this was not the last one heard of the demand for linguistic states. Eventually the States Reorganisation Commission (SRC) was established in 1953, after a stirring public debate lasting for months following the death of Potti Sreeramulu, who was on a fast-unto-death demanding a separate Andhra state. The Commission unambiguously wrote in its report submitted in October 1955 that the internal structure of the country was the result of “accident and the circumstances attending the growth of the British power in India.”

The SRC proposed forming 16 states and three centrally administered areas. The report, however, did not resolve the vexed issue of linguistic principle for states’ formation, riding two boats simultaneously by stating that it had given due consideration to administrative and economic factors while also keeping the linguistic basis in mind. The States Reorganisation Bill was passed in 1956 and new states formed while the different category of states – Part A, B & C states – were eliminated. However, as the demand for linguistic states resulted in conflict between agitators and the government, and even among different linguistic groups, the issue was far from resolved.

British consolidation of power

British Liberal statesman John Bright. Credit: Public domain

This had a lot to do with the way the British consolidate their imperial power after 1857. The British tried to convert territories secured after 1857 into administrative blocks that had little administrative, cultural or historical homogeneity. India was divided into provinces and Indian (princely) states which had no historical basis.

The decision of the British in delineating annexed states and ones which escaped such a fate was taken solely from the prism of colonial interest and political alliances it was striking. The minutest decision that the British took to decide on the fate of the smallest state, was determined by “the military, political or administrative exigencies or conveniences of the moment.”

This was guided by British Liberal lawmaker John Bright, who proposed in the British parliament that India be grouped into five administrative units on the basis of geography and language. The linguistic principle was introduced in carving out administrative region or units, a decision taken 160 years ago, with scant knowledge about India’s linguistic diversity. The implication of using this principle are all too evident even now.

Provincial reorganisation of India served two purposes of the British government. Firstly, every challenger to the imperial power was removed from regions that were of vital economic and strategic  importance. Secondly, the administrative units introduced new loyalties into territories and among people who had witnessed the collapse of previous rulers. The British countered old loyalties by fostering new institutions, consolidating their political stranglehold.

Moreover, these provinces introduced the idea of an imperial power even to those people who had previously been ruled by ‘independent’ kings and queens who paid no obeisance to an imperial durbar, Mughal or otherwise. The provinces and their people were subordinated by the imperial or central government, mere representatives of the British Crown.

First demand for reorganisation

The first known instance of people demanding reorganisation of provinces by using the linguistic principle was in the 1890s, when a demand arose for removing the Hindi speaking areas in today’s Bihar from Bengal province. Thereafter, in 1905, Bengal was divided to form, along with Assam, firstly, the provinces of East Bengal and Assam and the rest of Bengal, which comprised the western part of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Chota Nagpur. Shortly thereafter, the linguistic principle was paradoxically cited as the reason for transferring certain Oriya-speaking tracts from the Central Provinces to Bengal. Six years later, the partition of Bengal was annulled, but while Assam became a chief commissioner’s province, Bihar, Orissa and Chota Nagpur were drawn into a separate province of Bihar and Orissa.

Even though the linguistic principle was still being applied only in parts and also without adequate knowledge of the country’s linguistic maze, the Congress in 1920, at the famous Nagpur session that Hindu nationalists wished to ‘hijack’ to emphasise displeasure over Mahatma Gandhi drawing the Khilafat Movement into the Congress’ plank, “accepted the linguistic redistribution of provinces as a clear political objective.” In less than a year, the party decided to reorganise its provincial units on the linguistic principle and geographical continuity. An imperial decision had been accepted by the vanguard of the national movement!

Further, between 1928 and 1947, the Congress on at least four separate occasions, reiterated its belief in the linguistic principle. Firstly, when the (Motilal) Nehru Committee Report examined the matter of redistributing provinces in 1928, it supported the linguistic principle by asserting that “a province has to educate itself and do its daily work through the medium of its own language, it must necessarily be a linguistic area. If it happens to be a polyglot area difficulties will continually arise and the media of instruction and work will be two or even more languages. Hence it becomes most desirable for provinces to be regrouped on a linguistic basis.”

Further ahead in 1937, at its Calcutta session, the Congress reaffirmed its “policy regarding linguistic provinces” and even recommended formation of Andhra and Karnataka on the same principle. A year later at Wardha, the party Working Committee assured delegations from Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala that the Congress would undertake “linguistic redistribution” the moment the party was in a position to do so. Finally, in the crucial provincial elections in 1945-46, the party in its manifesto pledged that “provinces would be constituted on a linguistic and cultural basis, not in every case but as far as it was possible.”

Coming within two years of this promise, the Dar commission questioned the linguistic principle and this provided the basis for the eventual dilution of the Congress standpoint. The JVP committee initially displayed political courage to back the Dar commission’s contention, but did not possess adequate political conviction to rule out states on linguistic basis.

Nehru buckles under public pressure

Mahatma Gandhi with Jawaharlal Nehru (L) and Sardar Vallabhai Patel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Congress party leaders had to reverse their long standing stance on linguistic states due to public pressure. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, after the passing of Patel, Nehru buckled under public pressure, accepting the demand for formation of Andhra Pradesh in 1953 and this opened the floodgates which remained open even after SRC and some of its recommendations being enacted by parliament.

The three small states that were carved out from existing ones in 2000 – Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand – were not on a linguistic basis, but addressed long-standing grievances of regional imbalance and lack of development. Likewise, the formation of Telangana addressed a long-standing demand of the region. Although demands for several smaller states are pending, the focus has considerably shifted from the formation of states on a linguistic basis to redrawing internal boundaries on the basis of underdevelopment.

Seventy years after the Dar commission chose to point to the need for a more reasoned view of a linguistic basis for states, it may be worthwhile to take a fresh look at how India is drawn internally. In that process, it would be worthwhile to peruse this little-referred report which is gathering dust.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.