The controversy in India over the proposed separation of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh as a new state brought two thoughts to mind: the irony of history and the tyranny of fashion.
There is little argument that many states in India are very large in area and population – much larger than many countries – and that there is a good case that smaller units can lead to more effective and participatory governance. Thus the call for decentralization is credible and consistent with the fashion of the day.
But think back now to 1947: At Independence India had about a dozen provinces governed directly by the British and over 500 princely states governed by treaty with hereditary local rulers who accepted British sovereignty in return for local autonomy. Could you have more decentralization than 500 states that had a coherence imparted by the legitimacy of tradition?
What happened in 1947? For Macaulay’s children – “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” – tradition was equated with backwardness and the ways of Europe with modernity. It was the fashion of the time, the European nation-state, which served as the model for the reorganization of India.
Could this be considered an irony? It were the traditional states that lost their identity and were merged into the alien British provinces as India was reorganized into 14 provinces and 7 union territories. One could conceive a process in which the British provinces could have been absorbed back into the princely states which could then have been rationalized by the merging of the many postage-stamp sized ones into their larger neighbors. This process could have yielded an outcome with, say, fifty sub-national units.
But this would have called for a different India, one that would have built on its own traditions. The British deviation, with its preference for ‘Anglicists’ over ‘Orientalists’ with which Indians went along, sent it on a trajectory that is now being painfully reversed. India began with 14 states that had few roots in tradition; it almost doubled the number in 1971 using language as a criterion. The direction was right but the criterion was just as arbitrary as the one used in 1947. Is this becoming evident now when language-based states are themselves fragmenting?
It is worth noting that the arguments from above for reorganization are couched in the fashionable discourse of efficiency and better governance. But the demands from below are really about the recognition of identity. And what better identity can there be than one rooted in tradition, a tradition that was sacrificed at the altar of modernity?
This speculation must address one aspect that would undoubtedly come up immediately – the popular image of the princely rulers as sybaritic and incompetent wastrels. While surely some amongst the 500 or so rulers would have qualified for these epithets, the general characterization is a gross caricature. That was how the British wanted the rulers to be seen to justify their encroachments and that is what their policies indirectly encouraged. Once all real authority for governance was taken out of the hands of the hereditary rulers, they had nothing left to do with their forced leisure than to fall into the stereotype, and some indeed did. In actual fact, prior to the British interventions, many of the states were quite well governed, often better than they are governed today, a recollection that lives on in many memories.
The evolution of the Indian Union can be contrasted with that of the Malayan Union which was established in 1946 as a single crown colony incorporating all nine traditional states in the territory. This union was dissolved in 1948 to be replaced by the Federation of Malaya restoring the autonomy of the rulers (Sultans) in the Malay states under British protection. While modern Malaysia has a parliamentary system of governance, the federal head of state is the king who is elected to a five-year term among the nine hereditary Sultans of the Malay states.
The Malaysian experience is highlighted only to refute the inevitable objections that such an outcome would never have been possible in South Asia. It was an outcome that needed a self-confidence and a sense of history on the part of the Indian elites. It reflects a mix of tradition and modernity that provides both a sense of identity to citizens and continuity to politics, one that provides an evolutionary path as the population itself modernizes, and one that the British themselves have not discarded at home. The absence of such continuity has been felt less in India than in Pakistan and Bangladesh that are rent apart at every political transition without the stabilizing symbolic figures with whom the citizens can identify.
The challenge for India now is to find a way to contain its fragmentation having given up the framework that could have provided it an anchor in tradition. What are the options and what is the logic that would govern the process?