CASTE IN CONTEMPORARY INDIAby Surinder S. Jodhka. Routledge, New Delhi and Abingdon, Oxon, 2015.
AN engaged dialogue on the ‘sociology of caste’ is sorely needed. It is a fact that there is no consensus among sociologists, anthropologists, historians and various social thinkers on the origins and characteristics of caste. For a long time sociologists and anthropologists have mapped caste either in village India or by falling back on the sacred Brahmanical texts, as an ancient Indian institution. But contemporary India is an amalgamation of villages and cities, with cities seen as a site for democracy, for modernity, for growth and social change. They are imagined as secular spaces where the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity are practised. The title of the book thus encourages one to ask whether caste really exists in contemporary India. Are the cities untouched by the practices of the caste system? What equation does caste have with capitalism? What hope do modernity and development give to the marginalized? These are questions that the author endeavours to answer in Caste in Contemporary India. The book is divided into three sections: hierarchies and the politics of citizenship; caste in the neoliberal economy; and mobility and mobilizations.
First, Jodhka contests the idea of ‘uniqueness’ of caste as a system of discrimination. Rather, he favours a comparative analysis of systems of discrimination at a global level, seeking similarities among the patterns of violence and prejudice that exist between systems of race, ethnicity and caste. Second, Jodhka maps the conceptual trajectories of caste by examining three ‘moments’: caste as tradition, caste as power politics, and caste as humiliation. The book under review problematizes conventional sociological theories which view caste as a static, hierarchical and uncontested phenomena as, for instance, advanced in Dumont’s categories of purity and impurity. Caste as power views caste through the lens of domination, as has been done by Srinivas in the concept of ‘dominant castes’, while Ambedkar and Dalit activists view caste as experienced reality of humiliation and discrimination. The reader is invited to effect a conceptual shift towards an analytical framework of ‘prejudice and discrimination’, permitting one to then engage in a comparative discourse on caste as a category of ‘status’ and ‘power’.
One often encounters the politics of redistribution of resources while speaking of sociopolitical movements. The demand for a ‘quota within quota’ or the issue of under-representation is a burning question within the women’s movement as well as the Dalit movement. The Dalit movement in Punjab is fraught with the question of unequal representation in quotas between the backward Mazhabi Sikhs and Balmikis and the socially mobile Chamars. Guru, referring to a similar dynamic between Mahars and Mangs in Maharashtra, terms it as ‘relative deprivation’.1 Jodhka shows how this double marginalization of the Mazhabi Sikhs and Balmikis further gets politicized by the ruling party for its own benefit.
Today, the questions of interrelations between citizenship, state, civility and Dalits are central to the discourse on caste. Mapping the struggles and assertions of Dalits through five case studies of caste-based atrocities, Jodhka shows how Dalits use the agency of citizenship and civil society to fight the injustices of caste while dominant caste individuals function less as citizens and more as members of caste associations or khaps. In the same context, Waghmore, referring to the Khairlanji struggle states that the Dalit movements ‘bring the state back in through violent demonstrations aimed at the state and simultaneous evocations of the Constitution against the tradition of caste violence, making liberal institutions important despite their shortcomings.’2 The book illustrates the growing impact of democracy in general and the deepening of constitutional modernity in public life in particular.
Scholars of caste are often asked about what happens to caste in capitalism, whether it survives or dies out. The book takes stock of caste in the neoliberal economy by addressing the issue of Dalits in business and analyzing the patterns of caste discrimination in corporate hiring. Jodhka notes the emergence of ‘mobile Dalits’ who have either moved away from their traditional occupations or shifted to cities in order to break free from the burden of caste and poverty inflicted within the villages.
The advent of modernity and capitalism has created a space, albeit marginal, for Dalit entrepreneurs to start petty enterprises. However, Jodhka discredits the oversimplification of the discourse on ‘Dalit millionaires’ which celebrates neoliberal market policies. Any discussion on capitalism is incomplete without the mention of ‘merit’. For the majority of the educated middle classes, caste is kept alive only by the reservation policy of the government. The private sector has distanced itself from affirmative action under the pretext of seeking pure merit, and by equating reservations to corruption. Jodhka challenges such an idea of merit and terms it as corporate ‘caste blinding’ (p. 119), which he illustrates through the recruiter’s preference for one’s own kind in terms of caste and class.
Through various case studies and use of empirical data, Jodhka shows that the reality of caste in India is constantly changing and assuming newer forms. He maintains that ‘the most surprising and interesting thing that the reality of caste presents in contemporary India is the fact that precisely at a time when all sociological evidence points to its decline, it is becoming more visible and complex’ (p. 219). Notably, the book would have been enriched by some discussion on how electoral politics and caste interact in contemporary India, a regrettable lack. Nonetheless, the book is an important resource, both as an evidence based sociological study on Punjab and Haryana, and as a significant addition to the extant discourses on caste.
Doctoral student, Centre for the Study of Social Systems,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi
1. Gopal Guru, ‘The Dalit Movement in Mainstream Sociology’, in S.M. Michael (ed.), Dalits in Modern India: Vision and Values. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2007.
2. Suryakant Waghmore, Civility Against Caste: Dalit Politics and Citizenship in Western India. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2013.
WHEN GODAVARI COMES: People’s History of a River – Journeys in the Zone of the Dispossessedby R. Umamaheshwari. Aakar Books, Delhi, 2014.
THE Indira Sagar Polavaram Irrigation Project will break forever the free flow of a 910-mile long river and destroy the homes and livelihoods of over two lakh people of Andhra Pradesh (A.P.), and many more in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Historian-journalist R. Umamaheshwari journeyed through East Godavari, West Godavari and Khammam districts of A. P. during 2006-10, meeting people whose lives have been irreversibly affected by the ‘Polavaram dam’. This book is a chronicle of human tragedy, unfolding along with the river’s changing fortunes.
People who dwell by the Godavari are tribal, dalit, fisherfolk, farmers, with ways of life that evolved over millennia, fine-tuned to the nuances of a river. An important part of their lives is the annual ‘coming’ of Godavari, which state officials now describe as ‘flooding’. When the river comes, people move up the hills, and when it goes, as it does, receding within a day or a week, they return home. The soil is richer, the silt deposited renders it exceedingly fertile, and new seeds sprout and grow in abundance. People, therefore, welcome this annual flooding. It is the state, with its ‘development earthquake’, that they do not know how to deal with.
This book at times reads like a thriller, at other moments like a stern NGO report. It holds treasures, a plethora of painstaking details, which convey the living truth of the river and the dam. It tells one about government offices where villagers come to sign a piece of paper they cannot read, giving away lands they have tilled over centuries. A web of deceit has been woven, not least of which is that the paper describes dam-affected people as ‘flood-affected’. The fiction that people are ‘flood-affected’ is a convenient ploy, for it constructs the villagers as victims of a natural disaster, rather than a man-made one.
People’s protests seem to make no difference in the calculus of the state. Dissent is treated as sedition. Despite thousands of villagers refusing to move, the dam is being constructed; in 2014, it was declared a national project. Combining oral history with archival sources, Umamaheshwari uncovers a legacy of imperialist domination, showing how a dam such as Polavaram is part of a continuum of political contestations over control and use of resources, and particular articulations of ‘development’. In this ensemble, irreplaceable cultural modes, life-worlds, systems of knowledge, wetlands, forests and free rivers may count for nothing.
In Devipatnam mandal, East Godavari, Rami Reddi, a Kondareddi girijan (tribal, adivasi), recounts: ‘In the past Kondareddis were hill chieftains… until zamindari estates were set up and Polavaram passed into non-tribal hands… In British times the government was always in conflict with girijans… They brought in the reserved forest system. Our grandfathers… opposed it… There were revolts for seven long months (in the 19th century). Subba Reddi stopped supplies to the British forces coming in boats… Finally, they caught him and executed him at Polavaram and another one of us at Buttaigudem. Vetla Subba Reddi was also hanged in Polavaram.’
Umamaheshwari finds, in a colonial gazetteer: ‘Polavaram village contains some bombs which are locally stated to be those of European soldiers… Another grim relic of the old disorders in these parts… was the gallows on which Subba Reddi and Kommi Reddi, the ringleaders of the fituri (revolt) of 1858 were hanged…’
In 1917, the Godavari districts came under the Agency Tracts Land Transfer Act. This rendered all transfer of immovable property to a non-tribal invalid. Yet, Rama Reddi notes, ‘Even after independence our government continued the reserve system… We were agricultural labour on our own land… In 1969 Tarimella Nagi Reddy (a Communist revolutionary who had broken away from CPI) came here and gradually we felt inspired by what he was telling us…’ In Devipatnam mandal alone, through a long drawn agrarian movement during 1960s-80s, the Kondareddis reclaimed 2000 acres of land grabbed by non-tribal landlords from the plain areas. Since then, Kondareddis have sought legal rights and pattas to this land, but in vain (pp. 222-25).
As in most areas affected by the Polavaram dam, so also in Pedabhimpally and Chinabhimpally villages, Indukur panchayat, East Godavari district – home to Konda Kammara and Koya Dora communities – project beneficiaries have mostly been upper caste absentee landlords. Radha, of Pedabhimpally, narrates: ‘We have been cultivating these lands. The RDO (Revenue Divisional Officer, Narsing Rao) came and obstructed us one fine day. He said Revenue Department has bought this land and we have no right to enter here… They did not give us pattas all these years.… When we questioned them, they filed cases against us… They beat up this old man, the other day. A non-tribal from Tantikonda has been shown as owner of this land.’
Ravi Bhumaraju, Pedabhimpally, adds: ‘We cultivated land together, there are no private lands here. About 54 acres of community land are being taken for Polavaram project.’ Land under continuous cultivation by tribal communities is legally recognized as owned by them; instead, they are being denied ownership rights, compensation if displaced, and charged with criminal trespass.
Conflict over tribal land alienation predates the Polavaram project, but has been further compounded by the target-driven ruthless nature of land acquisition. The acquisition process is replete with corruption and violation of constitutional rights of tribal communities. In a bizarre move, at times one set of tribal cultivators is being forcibly removed, and another group (tribal or non-tribal) displaced from elsewhere is being given their land as part of their R&R (Relief and Rehabilitation) package!
Madakam Kumari, Pamula Lakshmi and other tribals of Chinabhimpally village submitted a petition with thumb impressions to the district collector, East Godavari district, seeking redress under the SC, ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, alleging that the RDO, Narsing Rao, acted ‘in league with non-tribal and other wealthy landlords… showing false records of non-tribal ownership of lands… He threatened the Indukur Panchayat Secretary saying "mee antu telistan" (I will destroy you) if he did not change the records shown non-tribal ownership of the lands. Bringing the police with him, he rounded up the tribals and said, "You tribal scoundrels… you do not need farm land. You are like wild animals, why do you need cultivable lands?" He slapped false cases against us…’ (pp. 154-158)
The book records dozens of similar people’s petitions, with no action taken on any. Formations opposing the dam, or seeking proper compensation for oustees, include the Polavaram Vyetireka Adivasi Porata (Committee of Adivasis Opposing Polavaram), Agency Girijan Sangham, Adivasi Aikya Vedika, National Alliance of People’s Movements, and many other. The Adivasi Samkshema Parishad explains: ‘The question is of survival of the Koya people and Koya culture, as the Koyas are the majority group whose homes and lands will be submerged by the dam.’ Medha Patkar notes, ‘Our stand is against large centralized projects which exploit resources on which communities survive. These resources are to be considered as intergenerational capital.’
The government did agree to a number of preconditions in the year 2006, including provision of detailed information on project costs, assets to be benefited/ submerged, rehabilitation and compensatory forestry; holding gram sabhas to take consent before acquiring land; refraining from use of police force, but eventually did not keep any of these promises. At the level of the macro-economy, significant MOUs have been signed, even as tribal peasants or landless dalits have become pauperized, and grown desperate.
Gangaraju, an elderly villager facing displacement, muses, ‘We believe that since the earth was born, we girijans have cultivated these lands.’
‘From farmers they want to make us pavement dwellers,’ notes Rami Reddi. ‘Our homes have a place for everything, cattle, goats, hens… All R&R houses that I have seen so far seem to be made for slum dwellers in cities like Hyderabad… We grow our food… Have you seen our grain storage (gadi – a thatched bamboo space)? We store grains for years. Their R&R colonies do not even have that concept…’
Across the world, the evidence against big dams is overwhelming: incontrovertible evidence. People opposed the Tehri dam for decades; the Narmada Valley Sardar Sarovar Project gave rise to the strongest anti-dam movement in the world, yet authorities forged ahead, paying scant heed to the logic of ecological ways of life and sustainable, people-centred, rather than profit-led, development. A culture of impunity protects governments and corporate houses, which see no need to listen to citizens’ voices, or be accountable for their actions.
This book points to key unfinished tasks, relevant to India’s democracy, with implications worldwide. Material of this order of importance needs, however, to be better edited. Grammatical errors and other instances of gross negligence are too numerous to be listed. This is oddly disrespectful to the rare diligence of Umamaheshwari the traveller, her historian’s tenacity, a journalist’s observant eye, the courage of a woman out in the world alone and vulnerable, her openness to each different human note, and the willingness to resist what she sees, so clearly, as unethical and unacceptable.
Deepti Priya Mehrotra
Teaches at Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi
NATURE WITHOUT BORDERS edited by Mahesh Rangarajan, M.D. Madhusudan, and Ghazala Shahabuddin. Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2014.
IN an era when debate about the nature-conservation conundrum is suffused with disenchantment and despair, Nature Without Borders comes across as unusual, even path-breaking, unveiling new perspectives beyond the fetters of conventional thinking. Raising concerns about lopsided and neglected dimensions of environmental conservation in India in a context of a growing threat to biodiversity due to rapid economic growth and mounting demographic pressures, the exposition of ideas instils a ray of hope while unfolding new challenges.
The basic thesis is firmly rooted in a critique of the current conservation policy ethos that targets an insignificant fraction of the nation’s biodiversity laden tracts – mostly remote, forested ‘protected areas’ under the jurisdiction of state authorities. Drawing on research insights, the authors assert that nature’s bounties extend far beyond such demarcated spaces. Besides, nature’s processes cannot be restrained within encapsulated physical domains. Therefore, restricting focus on only notified protected zones as a palliative for sustaining biodiversity reflects a blinkered vision of the natural environment and its extensiveness as well as means to nurture its entities and ecological systems.
While upholding the virtues of ‘protected areas’ for keeping at bay the pace of extinction and ecologically threatening land use changes, the authors lament that policy frameworks have been oblivious of vast areas outside the narrow confines of isolated protected zones that also harbour a rich variety of taxa worthy of biodiversity conservation. The book makes a substantive contribution by drawing attention to complexities ingrained in these myriad spaces encompassing coastal belts, rivers, farmlands, arid grasslands, plantation areas, wilderness adjacent to high altitude mountain villages as well as natural water bodies and vegetation in the vicinity of urban settlements, where nature and human enclaves are intricately interwoven. In many belts, the biota is stressed warranting appropriate interventions in terms of preservation or restoration.
Delving on the efficacy of ‘protected areas’, the authors question the reliance on stringent top-down regulatory mechanisms for preserving alienated pockets. They claim that the notion of creating guarded enclosures in a bid to emphasize the priority of the biological over the anthropocentric facets is untenable, as ‘success’ here depends on restricting the access rights of local communities to natural resources. Therefore, these zones tend to become conflict-prone, as surreptitious entry for livelihood reasons continues, resulting in unforeseen counterproductive outcomes. Consequently, the book makes an ardent plea for more innovative ways of nurturing and protecting nature – a radical turnaround from authoritarian practices to more balanced and nuanced approaches using congenial tools based on scientific enquiry and field-insights is proposed for sustaining biodiversity across a wide geographical expanse of the country’s natural environment. This is the book’s second major breakthrough.
Spanning varied regional contexts, the principal premise reverberates across all the essays, each contributed by passionate and academically oriented conservationists, eager to embark on less explored horizons. From Himalayan montane tracts to plantation belts in the Western Ghats, from arid Deccan grasslands to farm areas in the Indo-Gangetic plains, from the southern coastline to the river Ganges as well as urban areas in two disparate locations, the reader gains in-depth insight on the intricacies of comprehending and resolving conservation issues where nature is juxtaposed with spaces that cater to livelihood requirements.
The fundamental thrust is on understanding ways to mitigate the repercussions of contemporary economic growth, market integration and globalization wherein production, productivity and resulting lucrative gains assume predominance at the cost of nature. Under these circumstances, rather than relying on trade-off solutions or imposition of barriers, the principal aim of conservation action should be to enable a porous landscape by evolving measures that perceive ‘livelihood imperatives’ and ‘ecological challenges’ in unison.
In consonance with much of the emerging global literature on governing commons, the authors too support an alternate conservation strategy that varies with the degree of informed engagement, spontaneous collaboration and active participation by citizens and government for promoting both socioeconomic and ecological goals in a democratic manner. They assert that community-based oversight and citizen’s protest against outright violations has to be an integral part of the agenda, if successful outcomes are to be assured. Most essays help identify conflicting dimensions in their respective physical contexts besides proposing well targeted mechanisms to resolve the same. However, detail narratives of implementation efforts on the ground along with nature’s recovery are presented only in a few cases.
Over the last few decades, in response to depleting natural resources and laxity in state governance, many otherwise disgruntled conservationists have shifted allegiance to the conservation paradigm propounded throughout the book. While the underlying principles of this approach appear to be on sound conceptual grounds, in practice, however, there are significant concerns that may reduce the likelihood of achieving positive results. The current mind-set of policy makers and even citizenry at large, who seem to be myopic about the debilitating ecological implications of their actions, is likely to be the greatest stumbling block thwarting genuine efforts for reversing undesirable trends. Biodiversity issues feature but marginally in their thinking, leave alone any inkling about the ecological role of nature and its constituents for enriching their own habitat and well-being.
In a similar vein, blatant violations, particularly by powerful lobbies, even when acceptable curative measures have been instituted, will remain a persistent obstacle. Much will also depend on long-term cooperation from the state that effectively deals with disharmony across its innumerable departments pursuing multiple, anomalous and often conflicting objectives. Although these hindrances are articulated at some junctures in the book, there was scope for greater emphasis.
The trajectory of nature conservation illuminated in the book still has a long way to go. But nascent efforts that rest on solid foundations and thus cannot be nonchalantly disregarded because of potential risks involved seem to be in sight. Opting for this hitherto less trodden path is undoubtedly a step in the right direction if the obstacles are anticipated and strategically surmounted. Persistent efforts and demonstration through success stories will facilitate a new movement, covering more ground converging towards all perceived consequences for nature and human well-being as the book envisages.
The book is well structured and conveys complexities in a simple manner, akin to research inclinations of the wildlife biologist to whom the book is posthumously dedicated. No stone is left unturned to drive home the moot point: focusing only on notified protected areas through ‘exclusivist’ mechanisms portrays a limited perception of the depth and extensiveness of nature conservation prerogatives across a multiplicity of equally significant geographical spaces that are semi-remote, partially human-dominated as well as landscapes with the highest human population densities in the world. The references to each essay are rewarding for their contemporaneity and relevance in reinforcing the claims and premises that are outlined in the book, besides enticing the reader to pursue further exploratory research.
Overall, the book conveys an optimistic outlook, enlightening the reader on new possibilities for conservation action. The book is a must read for budding enthusiasts to understand conservation challenges in holistic, interdisciplinary and innovative ways, for policymakers to inculcate the spirit of open enquiry and, most crucially, the public at large to comprehend the importance of active engagement in nature conservation without which the vision that the book proposes will not be realized.
Independent researcher, Delhi
REVISITING 1956: B.R. Ambedkar and States Reorganisation by Sudha Pai and Avinash Kumar. Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2014.
REDRAWING the internal boundaries and the creation of new states in India has always been a continuing process, during both the British rule and after independence. The issue was extensively debated over several years during the drafting of the Indian Constitution. But what was thought to be a more or less settled matter has turned out a contentious one throughout the life of independent India. Over the past several decades, most of the states of India that were listed under four categories in 1950 have either been divided or their boundaries changed. Perhaps, the ephemeral nature of the boundaries of the constituent units of the country is built into the character of the nation, given its huge social diversity and the unfinished task of nation building. Probably, this is also the secret of India’s survival as a nation despite being a site of persistent agitation and anxiety for its policymakers as well as the people.
No sooner had the Constitution came into force in independent India, a demand for new states began to emerge. The creation of a separate state for the Telugu-speaking people out of the then composite Madras state in 1953, and then merging it with the Telugu-speaking region of the erstwhile state of Hyderabad to form the state of Andhra Pradesh was the first major step in redrawing the internal boundaries. Thus, Andhra Pradesh was the first state to be created after independence on the basis of the linguistic principle, i.e. one state for people of one language. The latest act in this process was the creation of a new state of Telangana in June 2014, the 29th state of India, by dividing the state of Andhra Pradesh into two. Once again, Andhra Pradesh became the first non-Hindi linguistic state to be divided into two states.
The creation of Telangana marked a departure from the linguistic principle that had so far remained the primary basis for the creation of states in the non-Hindi speaking regions. It accords with the principle that Ambedkar had proposed that while a common language could be the basis for the creation of a new state, it was not necessary that all contiguous people speaking one language should remain in one state. It is in this context that the authors of this book revisit Ambedkar’s ideas on states’ reorganization, because the creation of Telangana may not be the end of a process of reorganization of internal boundaries and creation of new states and may instead mark a beginning of the creation of more states, not only in Hindi speaking areas but also in states such as Maharashtra.
The book brings together speeches and writings of Ambedkar on the subject of reorganization of the states during the period 1938-56. The collection of original writings and speeches is preceded by a thorough analysis of his ideas and their evolution by locating them in the context of events that unfolded at that time. This was a critical period for India when there were passionate debates on the organization of states in the Indian Union. Many of the ideas and issues debated during this period continue to be relevant even today as do the ideas of Ambedkar.
The complexity involved in the process of creating states in India’s formative years becomes evident from the shifts in Ambedkar’s ideas with regard to the formation of linguistic states and the issues involved therein, such as the official language, size and viability of states. The authors claim that these shifts in Ambedkar’s ideas represented a pragmatic response to the changing conditions and circumstances of the time. Initially, in 1938, he had opposed the formation of linguistic states. He thought that allowing feelings of unity on the basis of region or language would go against forging India into a nation that was in an embryonic stage. He warned that while the formation of a linguistic province might satisfy the political ambition of a few persons, such a move could well harm the people. He was of the view that reorganization of provinces should be carried out, not on the basis of emotional feelings of culture and linguistic identity, but on well thought out economic and political principles.
But by 1948 his position on linguistic states had undergone significant change. In a written statement, entitled ‘Maharashtra as a Linguistic Province’, presented to the Dar Commission, he indicated that there were distinct advantages in creating linguistic states. He argued that democracy and linguistic states were complementary processes: democracy would work better in linguistic provinces than in mixed states. A linguistic state produces what democracy needs, namely social homogeneity. Common language and culture promote unity. Linguistic heterogeneity in a state with democratic politics divides people into hostile camps and power would be used to promote the interests of some groups that dominate over others. Pointing to the hostilities between Maharashtrians and Gujaratis or Andhras and Tamilians, Ambedkar held that separate linguistic provinces would remove cultural tensions and strengthen democracy.
But his conception was different from the one advocated by others, or the kind that came into existence after independence. He was highly skeptical of indiscriminately forming new linguistic states which he feared would ruin the idea of a United India and make the working of the central government impossible. He wanted that the official language of every state should be the same as the official language of the central government; the role of the provincial language limited only to the purpose of demarcating the boundaries of a state. Under no circumstances, Ambedkar argued, should the linguistic provinces be allowed to make their provincial languages as official languages. He further laid down certain criteria to make a state viable; it must be of a certain geographic and demographic size, with a reasonable revenue generating ability.
In the last chapter of the book, the authors analyze the later writings of Ambedkar on states’ reorganization after the formation of the Andhra state, especially his ‘Thoughts on Linguistic States’ submitted to the States Reorganization Commission (SRC). These later writings mark yet another departure from his earlier ideas. Ambedkar himself recognized that his position on many issues had changed, but felt that he had opted for ‘responsibility over consistency’. He criticized the SRC for relying only on language without taking any other factor into consideration. He opposed the formation of states of highly uneven size although they meet the criterion of a common language. He pointed out that equality in the size of states was important in a federal democratic polity.
Ambedkar opposed the commission’s view that the creation of a single state for all people speaking one language should be the generally observed rule. He argued that this was a dangerous step as it would create states with great disparity in size, and make it impossible for the small states to bear the weight of the big ones. He opposed the principle of one state for one language, and argued that there could be more than one state with the same language. He pointed out that the formula of ‘one state, one language’ was not to be confused with that of ‘one language, one state’. Based on this principle, he proposed a division of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh into smaller states. He also proposed to divide Maharashtra into four states. An important consideration in the creation of states should be to maintain a balance among states within the federation. As such, states which are too large and too small should be avoided.
The formation of new states over the past several decades does not accord with Ambedkar’s ideas or framework. States were created depending on the exigencies of the situation, historical factors, ethnic conflict, vehemence with which demands were made, and the political calculations of the party in power at the Centre. Assam was divided into many states which did not meet Ambedkar’s criterion of viability and size. Goa was made into a separate state for different reasons. The same could be the case of recently formed Uttarakhand. Today, the different states of India are of very uneven size, something that Ambedkar opposed and thought would militate against the requirement of unity of the nation, democracy and federalism.
Reflecting on the formation of states in India, Ambedkar often drew parallels between India and other countries, especially those that were federal in nature. In Germany, to which Ambedkar repeatedly referred in his writings, the number of states had radically fluctuated over the past 100 years. However, we notice that their number had actually gone down by merging small states and territories, and very few new states were created in that country. The reorganization of states in Germany was mostly due to wars and the reunification in the 1990s. The number of states in the United States of America has increased from 13 in the initial years of its formation to the present 50, but this happened as much by acquiring and admitting new states over the years than merely by dividing or redrawing the boundaries of existing states. The state boundaries, especially in the Midwest, the West and the South are straight lines following latitude and longitude or follow geographical features or patterns of settlement.
If the German federation was built by consolidating regions and old states into new states, and if the US was built by adding new states, India has built the nation by creating new states from existing ones. The creation of new states in India is not based on fusion as in Germany or accretion as in the US, or administrative convenience as in Nigeria, but is a result of fission within the existing states. States of unequal size exist in all large federal countries such as the ones we have mentioned, but in India the size of the states also correspond to language, culture, and religion. This is the peculiar feature of Indian states. We have small states like Goa, Nagaland, and Uttarakhand, and large states such as Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, not to speak of Uttar Pradesh. One can think of dividing Uttar Pradesh into several small states. But the same small state argument may not hold when we come to Tamil Nadu. Clearly, there does not seem to be one formula for the creation of states in all regions. India will continue to be an asymmetrical federation in the true sense.
In March 1947, five months before he was appointed as chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar drafted a ‘Constitution of the United States of India’. His conception of states of India was rather that of a viable administrative unit, broadly on the lines of states in the United States of America. According to him a state should be of a standard size and be endowed with natural resources capable of supporting a decent standard of living for its people and which can, by reason of its revenues and population, function as an autonomous state, maintain law and order against internal disturbance and guarantee to its subjects minimum standards of administration and welfare. Though many states of India do not meet all the criteria set by Ambedkar, the idea of a United States of India remains relevant.
The population of some of the larger states in India is as large as many of the independent nations of the world. California, the largest state of the United States has a population of 38 million and North Rhine-Westphalia, the largest state in Germany, has a population of 18 million. Many states in India have a population much larger than that. Nearly 40 of the 50 states in the US, and 13 of the 16 states of Germany have a population that is less than ten million.
Ambedkar wanted to call India as the ‘United States of India’, and that idea may become real if India continues to create more new states in the coming years. There are already nearly 30 states, and there are demands for separate states such as Vidarbha, Gorkhaland and Bodoland. There are proposals for dividing Uttar Pradesh into three or four states. If we add the existing Union Territories to the list, the time is not distant when the number of states in India would be close to the USA. But a United States of India will be less like the United States of America, and more like a United States of Europe that presently goes by the name of European Union, consisting of many states of extremely uneven size, each characterized by a different combination of historical background, language, religion, and culture.
Professor of Political Science,University of Hyderabad