Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Separate States and Self-determination: Learning from the Telangana struggle

A week ago the Deccan Chronicle published a statement by the famed activist Kacha Iliah. The statement was a response to a demonstration that had been held outside Illiah’s house by students who are pro-Telangana. These students opposed Illiah’s support of the demand of tribal activists in current Andhra Pradesh for Manya Seema, a separate State of their own. Iliah reports that ‘Most of the upper caste Telangana leaders were of the view that those who live in the region should support Telangana and no other issue of caste, tribe, gender or exploitation should figure in the debate in any form’. The Telangana agitators, he argues ‘seem to think that whatever their position, the tribals should not raise their problems now. If they raise such issues now, the separate Telangana process would be hindered. Similarly, if the minorities or exploited castes raise the question of their status in Telangana state, the process would be hindered’.

This debate is an interesting one for a number of reasons, not least because there is an echo here from the observations of activists demanding the recognition of the Roman script for Konkani. In my conversations with them, they too recollected that at the height of the Konkani language agitation, the details of script was never discussed, but left for another time. The activists recollect that they were told not to worry, that their interests (i.e. that of Roman script users) would be taken care of. Subsequently when they raise the issue, the old fear of merger into Maharashtra is raised. This column is not about the Romi–script demand however.

Reading the text of Iliah’s response, it occurred to me, that for reasons that will become evident, we should perhaps see the demands for Telangana and Manya Seema as self-determination movements. These movements may use sub-nationalist languages, and continue within the framework of the Indian nation-state, but they are in fact demands the recognition of their difference from the larger group within which they find themselves lumped. We should not be surprised to realize that there is an overlap between the contours of the demand for Telangana and of the boundaries of the Nizam’s provinces. There is a similar mulki movement, in the portion of the Nizam’s domains that are now subsumed within Karnataka. Similarly, as was the case with Jharkhand, Manya Seema seems to draw from cries of non-representation of tribal interests and their persecution within the non-tribal polity. Anti-colonial self-determination movements made similar demands; for democratic representation within political formations that undermined local (i.e. national interests) for the interests of the metropolitan centre. Nationalist self-determination movements assert cultural differences that cannot be sustained in the current political arrangement. We should bear in mind that most successful nationalist self-determination movements began within the framework of the colonial legal system, and were radicalized only when rebuffed by the colonial State. Why should we therefore, see Telangana and Manya Seema differently?

Allow me to confess support for the Telangana movement. From within the alleyways of my twisted imagination I see it as the right, and perhaps natural response, of the former Nizam’s provinces to articulate their difference from coastal Andhra. Merely speaking the same language does not guarantee a similarity of interests. There is such a thing as a different political history that counts as well. Clearly there is a subtext to my expression of support. As Goan, I speak from a similar context where a subject population was dragged willy-nilly into the Indian Union. And yet, despite this support, one can have no sympathy for the Telangana activists’ opposition to the tribal demand.

It is typical of self-determination movements, to deny or delay the demands of the weaker. This has been the standard ploy of most citizenship movements, starting with the French Revolution. This column referred a couple of weeks ago to the Haitian revolution that sprung from a refusal of the French metropolitans to recognize that the Rights of Man applied to slaves as well. For a long time, women too were not deemed to be able to benefit from these Rights of ‘Man’. In the light of the colonial empires’ careful distinctions between citizens and subject populations; nationalist freedom struggles for self-determination were a part of this demand to extend citizenship rights to the elites of the colonial world. Thus the demands that we see popping up in various parts of India, are not aberrations, but continuations of the logic of citizenship. As they continue this logic, they continue also the exclusions of the original understanding of citizenship, where the demand is made in the name of all, but restricted to but a few.

In light of the playing out of this logic therefore, there seems to be matter here for us to realize that while the demand is something we can sympathize with, the real solution to the problem does not lie with self-determination movements.

And yet, as a friend pointed out however, are there ‘real solutions’ anywhere? We invariably have to settle for ‘precarious consensus’ in the sphere of the political. The fact is that eventually, these ‘precarious consensus’ will break down, as any such consensus does. The resulting chaos (or fitna if you will) will result in new articulations of suffering, victimhood and disadvantage, leading to a deepening of democracy. Indeed, one can thus see the Indian ‘police action’ in Hyderabad as necessary to get rid of the feudal rule of the Nizam, and the subsequent Telangana movement as necessary to get rid of Andhra dominance, and the tribal demand as necessary to a broader realization of democracy in the region.

The above is a pragmatic response and I am not saying that we (especially those of us who see merit in the tribal demand) should abandon the route of demand for a separate state. As long as independent nation-states are the basis of the articulation of the international order, such a route is inevitable, and indeed necessary. However, if we hold some cynicism as regards the success of the separate State solution, even as we fight for it, we might be better served.

Thus we can continue to support the separate state of Telangana, and articulate a demand of Manya Seema, hopefully resulting in an amelioration of the lives of the tribals in this process. But we should disabuse ourselves of any hope of a final solution in a separate state.

(A version of the article was first published in the Gomantak Times, 7 April 2010)

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