KRISHANK M, 21, an aspiring actor and student, grabs a quick bite sitting on a charpoy under a tent in the nondescript village of Chinnapur, just off NH-9. The Osmania University student, along with 120 others drawn from 12 universities across the Telangana region, has stopped for a lunch organized specially for them by the village chief. “We grew up hearing and reading stories about what it was like to be part of India’s freedom struggle. I never thought I’d ever know what it felt like to experience it first-hand. But today, I do,” says the law student who, along with other members of the Telangana Students Joint Action Committee (TSJAC), is demanding that a separate Telangana state be carved out from Andhra Pradesh. Krishank and his colleagues have been on the road for 12 days already during the course of their march. By the time it finishes eight days later, after crisscrossing Karimnagar on the way to Adilabad and Warangal, the students would have walked 600 km across five districts and 300-odd villages to tap into support for a separate state.
When the Telangana agitation came to a boil in December last year with K Chandrashekhar Rao’s fast-unto-death leading to a shutdown in the region, many regarded it as mere cynical politics, a desperate gambit by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) leader to revive a political career that had been in free-fall. But the reality on the ground is very different: there is a huge, popular mass movement that is fast gaining critical momentum. Students like Krishank and his colleagues are beinng feted as heroes as they espouse their cause across the countryside, tapping into the simmering discontent. Typically, the students walk around 30 km each day. Walking alongside the students on the stretch from Jagitala to Chinnapur TEHELKA saw villagers — sometimes a few hundred in number, sometimes less — lining the route to garland the marchers, tossing flowers and egging them on. School children have given their classes a miss to see their heroes, holding aloft banners; some girls jostle to take autographs in their exercise books. Women come out and dance in circles around the intricate flower arrangements made along the route. Motorists slow down, stopping and joining in the impromptu dance. It is as if Batakama, the local spring festival, has arrived early. The celebrations are an expression of cultural identity and a proclamation of self-respect. Indeed, the students are terming their statehood call a self-respect movement. By all indications the students will be the show-stoppers in Dharmapuri when they make it to the village later for a seminar on the Telangana movement, struggle and the way forward. The whole village will be in attendance.
“It’s no longer an identity movement or about development. It’s become a self-respect movement. In 1969 (when Congress defector M Chenna Reddy founded the Telangana Praja Samithi and launched an agitation which petered out within two years), it was mainly middle class and urban in nature and led primarily by a political party. But this time there is a much wider support base,” explains Nagam Kumaraswamy, another member of the TS-JUC. “We are seeing the convergence of just about every social movement, involving all the other denominations — urban, rural poor, dalits and the middle class — all coming together regardless of class, caste or political affiliations. This time it’s a mass movement led by the people and not controlled by any political party,” says the PhD in Political Science from Osmania University.
The agitation certainly shows no signs of petering out this time. An under-pressure central government announced on December 9 last year that the process of forming a separate Telangana state would be started soon. The Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions protested against the proposed carving-up of the state, with local ministers and MLAs shooting off their resignations. A fortnight later the Centre backtracked, saying no action would be taken until all parties reached a consensus on Telangana.
An all-party Telangana Joint Action Committee (JAC) and many other such panels have cropped up ever since, staging relay hunger strikes and threatening resignations of all legislators. Earlier this month, the Union Home Ministry set up a five-member panel on Telangana headed by retired Supreme Court judge, Justice DN Srikrishna. The panel will consult all parties and the public on the matter. As many as 139 MLAs and a handful of MPs have quit over the issue, but their resignations are yet to be accepted. Rallies, hunger strikes and suicides have been a regular feature in the last few weeks.
Telangana today is dotted with small tents along main arterial roads, major intersections and highways, sporting the words JAC prominently. There are about 100 JACs and counting. These are decentralised political units organised along caste, occupation and organisational lines. Typically, workers at a factory and even shops organise themselves under a JAC banner and stage a hunger strike, hold awareness campaigns or engage in civil disobedience.
“The role model was the Osmania students’ JAC,” says M Kodandaram, a political JAC convener and a professor at the university. “They took out a rally on November 29 (the day Chandrashekhar Rao began his fast) when they were caned. The lathi charge was brutal and the TV clippings really motivated people to come out and support (the students). Every village, town, district and mandal has a JAC. It’s the instrument that’s leading the agitation,” he says.
These JACs have managed to come up in a matter of weeks because there is considerable political awareness among the people of the region. This owes a great deal to a public meeting held in Warangal in 1996 when 2,000-odd people, among them lawyers, trade unionists, development workers and the intellectual elite, met and discussed the way forward for the Telangana movement. Kumaraswamy explains: “This present movement, which incudes everyone regardless of caste, creed or class, has been possible because of the artist. Not the politician. You have to understand that Telangana is rich in folk traditions and home to many singers. These balladeers write their own songs, songs about the village and the locality and the problems they are facing and the exploitation at work. They are great political commentators.”
THE FORMATION of Chandrashekhar Rao’s party in 2001 with a separate Telangana state as its stated onepoint agenda represented the organisational apogee of that momentum. Kumaraswamy, a dalit, says of the uppercaste Rao: “We may have differences with him as an individual, but as a political unit they have our support because we all need to stand together to get Telangana. The different organisations that have come together will pursue their own agendas only once Telangana is achieved. That is paramount.” Adds Krishank: “We will support whoever supports Telangana.”
At the heart of the simmering Telangana agitation is under-representation in governance and bureaucracy and the cultural and social prejudice that has pushed locals to the fringes and made them unemployable. Previous regimes have reneged on their promises and neglected the region. Most locals today feel their destiny is no longer in their hands, having been appropriated by the landed aristocracy of a different culture and community (the coastal Andhraites) which considers them lesser citizens.
To understand the current movement, one has to begin with water. The chief occupation in the region is agriculture. Being largely a semi-arid zone, irrigation is paramount. The Krishna and Godavari run through Telengana but while the region’s catchment share from the Krishna is 68 percent, its actual allotment is only 37 percent. It is a similar story with the Godavari. Taking into account all the existing and proposed projects, Telangana will have an irrigated to cultivable land ratio of a mere 18 percent This, despite having the highest cultivable area and a lion’s share of the two rivers that flow through Andhra Pradesh. The situation, in a semi-arid land dependent almost entirely on monsoon, worsened in the late 1990s after a change in agrarian policy under the then Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu.
In keeping with the global economic market mantra, Naidu sought to integrate the farmer with the market through the introduction of contract agriculture. Among other things, this meant a change from the traditional rain-fed food crops to cash crops which required more water. A change to commercial agriculture needed investment, such as borewells, which were the only dependable water source for farmers in the region.
But in Telangana, bank loans dried up because banks were under pressure to return a profit from every loan transaction. This left the Telangana farmer at the mercy of moneylenders and traders who charged high interest rates. The farmers borrowed at those rates and dug borewells (about 75 percent of the borewells in the region were dug between 1993 and 2005) and matters turned for the worse. Power became a significant cost, the supply was erratic, groundwater dried up and then came the nail in the coffin: three consecutive poor monsoons. This led to the farmer suicides.
“Telangana now comes as a solution to all these problems. It says, okay, we can redistribute the existing water in Krishna and Godavari and with Telangana’s due share from canal waters and using that to fill up all the tanks, we can make agriculture profitable even in Telangana,” says Kodandaram. The region has always had a tangible and distinct identity. This shows up in cuisine, religious festivals and language. Owing to its varied history, Telangana has been a multi-cultural cauldron with its dialect a mix of Persian, Marathi, Kannada and Telugu.
At the time of the merger of Telangana region with Andhra state in 1956, the people from the coast had a distinct advantage. Apart from the economic inequity of the two peoples, the Andhraites were more able administrators due to their familiarity with English under the British. Andhra also had a much larger Congress base, which fetched political dividends. Not helping matters for the Telanganite was the flight of its elite following the Nizam’s ouster; most of the Muslim aristocracy headed off to Pakistan and the Marathwada and Kannada Brahmins back to Maharashtra and Karnataka respectively. Telangana did not have a significant socio-economic elite to balance the landed aristocracy of Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra. The State Re-organisation Committee had recommended that Telangana’s merger should be put off by at least six years, if not altogether, to give the region some time to develop. The Centre ignored the recommendations.
Over the years, the lion’s share of the state’s bureaucracy, business and commerce has been taken over by the coastal elite. And when one factors in the prejudice of other regions, this translates into a lack of good jobs for the Telanganite, whose doctorate from Osmania University will fetch him a job paying Rs 3,000 a month. T Srikanth Rao, an Osmania scholar and Telangana Students Joint Action Committee member, says: ”If you go to Dr Reddy’s Labs, for example, you’ll see that any managerial or supervisory post is held either (by someone) from Andhra or elsewhere, never from Telangana. The only Telanganaites you will find are less than half the workers on the factory floor. Even among the workers you’ll be hard put to find any Telanganites…” Krishank adds: “We are migrating from these areas to… Mumbai and Dubai and as drivers and electricians. The manual labour is always from Telangana, the intellectual brains always from Andhra.” It’s no accident that the movement erupted in Osmania University and is being led by Dalit students. They’ve had to watch the better life from the sidelines.
“We cannot afford to go abroad and study. The Telugus going abroad to study, you’ll notice, are all from Andhra because they are the only ones who can afford it,” Krishank says. “We live on scholarships, we fill the government institutions. We cannot afford the higher private technical education… We can’t afford it. A huge majority of students in Osmania University are poor.”
KUMARASWAMY SAYS: “An equally bitter pill to swallow has been the prevalent cultural and social prejudice… that considers the Telanganite, perhaps due to the unequal educational opportunities and his difficulty with English, as inferior. His Telugu, which given his multicultural lineage draws from Urdu, Marathi and Kannada, is considered less ‘pure’ and his Dalit festivals contemptible.” He says the prejudice is “flagrant in the media”, making the Telanganite feel “unrepresented and relegated to the margins”. Kumaraswamy adds: “The only time a character in a Telugu movie speaks in a Telangana accent is when he is meant to be ridiculed…”
The students laugh when told their movement is being linked with Maoists. “In this country, every time a people’s movement comes up they have only one preferred strategy and that is to label it as extremist. They are free to investigate if we are Maoists or not… (Ours) has become a people issue,” Kumaraswamy says. Krishank adds that there is no question of theirs becoming an armed struggle.
Change is in the air and it appears this time that the pro-Telangana protesters will finally get their way. The old order appears set to change, and quickly at that.