The year was 1947. India was midnight’s child, born out of the struggles of thousands of revolutionaries and common folk, in the hope for a life of freedom and dignity. With an eye towards unity, it was decided by our Constitutional fathers that 571 princely states would merge to form 27 states.
The grounds for this decision were more historical and political, rather than along the lines of language and culture.
Although this move was temporary, it was not until 1956 that the redrawing of political boundaries of states created by the British was initiated.
But when was the issue of the reorganisation of states first brought up?
A ‘Young’ India Divided on Question of Linguistic States
The call for a linguistic division of states is an old one as is evident from the British carving out a state for Oriya speakers in 1936 – Orissa, from the states of Bihar and Bengal.
The government finally formed a commission in 1948 under Justice SK Dhar, an Allahabad High Court judge, to address the need for linguistic division of states. However, the committee did not agree with this basis for the re-structuring of states, and would rather do so for administrative convenience.
Thus, in December 1948, Congressmen Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Pattabhi Sitaramayya formed the JVP Committee to address the issue, but dismissed the idea in April 1949, as they believed linguistic states would only weaken the unity of a new nation.
A need for the restructuring of political boundaries arose once again in 1952, in the wake of freedom fighter Potti Sreeramulu’s death. Sreeramulu had died after a 56-day hunger-strike which he had staged to draw attention to separate statehood for Telugu-speaking regions of Madras.
Thus, in 1953, Andhra – the first state for Telugu-speaking people was born. At the same time, demands for other states to be formed on linguistic lines arose.
Nehru’s ‘Tryst’ With Linguistic States
Thus, Nehru formed a commission led by Justice Fazl Ali on 22 December 1953 to address these demands. Two years hence, the Fazl Ali-led committee’s report concluded that India should be fractured into 16 states.
Finally, with the passage of the States Reorganisation Act (SRA) in November 1956, India was split into 14 states and six union territories. Consequently, four new southern states emerged among others – Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Madras (renamed Tamil Nadu in 1969) and Mysore (renamed Karnataka in 1973).
While Gandhi consistently advocated the linguistic division of states since as early as 1918, Nehru was opposed to it until the start of the 1950s.
As historian Ramchandra Guha says in this 2003 article in TOI, Gandhi told the Home Rule League in 1921 “to ensure speedy attention to people's needs and development of every component part of the nation", they should "strive to bring about a linguistic division of India".
What Ambedkar Had to Say on the Matter
Dr BR Ambedkar, the founding father of the Constitution was also a proponent of linguistic states, but wanted the move to take place within reasonable limits. This is what he had to say in an article in The Times of India dated 23 April 1953:
In a linguistic state, what would remain for the smaller communities to look to? Can they hope to be elected to the legislature? Can they hope to maintain a place in the state service?
Addressing the issue of caste and linguistic minorities, Ambedkar also said, “This does not mean that there is no case for linguistic provinces. What it means is that there must be definite checks and balances to see that a communal majority does not abuse its power under the garb (sic) of a linguistic state.”
To that end, Ambedkar wrote in his letter to the 1948 Congress-established Linguistic Provinces Commission, which made a case for the state of Maharashtra:
The Constitution should provide that the official language of every province should be the same as the official language of the Central government. It is only on that footing that I am prepared to accept the demand for Linguistic Provinces.
The Birth of New States
Despite the emergence of many states with the passage of SRA in 1956, the demands for the states of Bombay, Punjab, and the North Eastern states, were not addressed. While the Marathi and Gujarati speaking communities in Bombay wanted separate statehood, neither party was willing to surrender Bombay city.
Ultimately, the 1960 Samyukta Maharashtra Movement resulted in the creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat, with the former retaining Bombay city.
Similar tussles between linguistic and ethnic communities led to the creation of Haryana and Punjab in 1966, and Himachal Pradesh in 1971. In the North East, Nagaland was the first to attain statehood in 1963, followed by Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya in 1972. Over a decade hence, in 1987, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh were born.
Why Did We Want Linguistic States in the First Place?
The demand to create language-based political boundaries emerged out of a need to foster community participation and ensure stable governance. Further, it was hoped that vernacular languages would finally gain importance after being ignored by the British.
According to historian Ramachandra Guha in this article, linguistic states have bolstered unity, contrary to Nehru’s belief that it would further fracture an already partitioned nation and not serve the ideals of secularism. As Guha claims in his article:
It has proved to be perfectly consistent to be Kannadiga and Indian, Bengali and Indian, Tamil and Indian, Gujarati and Indian.Ramachandra Guha, historian to The Times of India
Pointing to the possible effects of not creating political boundaries based on language, Guha cites the example of erstwhile Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). In 1956, Sinhala was declared Ceylon’s only official language, triggering discontent among a certain Tamil faction. In fact, since 1983, the civil war that ravaged the island nation mostly stemmed from the majority linguistic group’s refusal of the minorities’ rights.
Closer home, the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, which led to the birth of Bangladesh, had arisen from conflict between the Punjabi and Urdu speakers of west Pakistan with the Bengali speakers of the east.
...And the Demand Continues
Despite the demand being an old one, it seems that the need for linguistic states is still prevalent. Take the demand for ‘Gorkhaland’ for instance, on etho-linguistic lines, that even very recently sparked widespread violence in Darjeeling.
Moreover, only three years ago, on 2 June 2014, India’s 29th state, Telangana, was carved out of Andhra Pradesh. The call for two separate Telugu states arose in 1969 when Andhra witnessed violent protests that finally led to the imposition of President’s Rule in the state in 1972.
While linguistic states certainly have their advantages, on the flip side, these states can sometimes be at war with each other, for example, the "water war” (over the Cauvery river) between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
As Guha says rather prophetically, if the political leaders of our country had turned a blind eye to the demand of language groups for separate states, we might have had “one language, but 14 or 15 nations.”