Hyderabad, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, India: Crisis

Hyderabad is the sort of city that makes poets out of ordinary men. It has a history of being home to different sorts of people, accepting them with an easy charm that only Hyderabad knows.
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Hyderabad is the sort of city that makes poets out of ordinary men. It has a history of being home to different sorts of people, accepting them with an easy charm that only Hyderabad knows. Centuries ago, in the days of the Golconda kingdom, it was the center of international trade, and it is once again becoming so in the present-era of high-tech globalization. And in spite of its present state of chaotic growth and sprawl, Hyderabad still makes one instantly recognize that this is a city that was once hauntingly beautiful. Its enchanted landscapes of massive rock formations and lakes have been mostly buried under now, but they exist, indeed persist, in my dreams and memories of Hyderabad.

Hyderabad is my home.

Hyderabad also happens to be at the center of an intense political crisis that has broken out in India, one which disturbs not just the city, but the state in which it lies, and indeed, the very form in which India exists today. Worse, it is a crisis that threatens the ease and affection with which people of various regions and religions have known each other for generations in these parts.

Hyderabad is the capital city of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh was created a few years after India gained independence from British rule as a homeland for Telugu-speaking people, who had been living under different political regions, some not even formally under British rule. The creation of Andhra Pradesh was of course so influential it led to the linguistic basis of state organization for India's diverse peoples. Language, as Ramachandra Guha writes in India After Gandhi, was even more influential than religion for political identity in postcolonial India. But in Andhra Pradesh, where the existing paradigm of language and statehood began, language would also prove strangely insufficient as a unifying identity from the start.

There were three adjacent regions in which people spoke Telugu that were brought together to form Andhra Pradesh: Coastal Andhra, which lies on India's Southeastern peninsula (which was part of the Madras province during British rule); Rayalseema, a landlocked region in the West (adjoining Karnataka), and Telangana (the region around Hyderabad, which was part of the former princely state of Hyderabad). The leaders of Telangana were reluctant to join Andhra Pradesh, but went along. Since then, the demand for a separate Telangana state has surfaced twice; once, with fatal consequences, in 1969, and once again in the last decade when liberalization began to turn Hyderabad into a city of great wealth. The most recent, and contentious, move took place a few days ago when the leader of the party that is calling for a separate state went on a hunger strike. Fearing the worst, the Government of India rather abruptly announced that it would begin the steps to create a separate Telangana state.

That has made the leaders and supporters of the Telangana movement happy. But it has made the rest of Andhra Pradesh furious with the ruling Congress party for its unilateral announcement, and worried about their future--many people from outside Telengana have built a stake in Hyderabad and wonder what separation means for them. It has since been the turn of politicians from the non-Telangana regions to call for protests and strikes. The Congress party, which won the most recent elections, has virtually found itself divided in the middle over this issue.

But politics aside, it is the concerns of ordinary citizens, and of those in Hyderabad in particular, that reveal the full gravity of the present situation. Telangana sees Hyderabad as its natural capital, dismissing suggestions that even if Andhra Pradesh were to be bifurcated, Hyderabad could remain as a common capital city for all regions (as is the case with Chandigarh, which is shared as a capital by the states of Punjab and Haryana). People from the non-Telangana regions do not feel happy about losing Hyderabad; as the capital city, it has drawn migrants and investors for generations now. Too many have a stake in the city now to walk away, symbolically or literally. Even more than the financial stakes, there is a cultural dimension. Hyderabad has not been the sort of city that divides and pounces upon itself and throws out its own. Hyderabad is the melting pot of India. It has been Muslim and Hindu; Telugu and Urdu; Telangana, and Andhra, and Rayalseema. It has been HiTech and Old City. But for the first time, the people of Hyderabad are beginning to wonder who they are. Identity has raised its head, in an ugly way.

Andhra Pradesh is clearly divided, already, in spirit. The land might just follow.

Why did all this have to be? Some of Telangana's grievances are indeed legitimate. While Hyderabad has prospered, the rest of Telangana has remained largely poor. The dominant culture of Andhra Pradesh has been a coastal Andhra one, with Telangana culture and language often being caricatured in Telugu cinema. Hyderabad has gone from a largely Muslim-and Hindu-Telangana culture to an increasingly Andhra-Telugu one as well. Local youth are threatened by the competition for jobs by the rest of the state. The grievance was long and hard, and also politically viable. Most major political parties supported the call for a separate Telangana in recent elections, and it got them the votes (except in the most recent polls, in which the Telangana separatist party was defeated). Now, each of these parties has either backtracked, or found itself divided on regional lines between those who are for a separate Telangana and those who are not.

As for those who are opposed to the formation of a separate Telangana state (on a side note, the Facebook page for a united Andhra Pradesh has around 20,000 members), there are numerous concerns and counter-grievances. Telangana has been neglected and undeveloped, true; but so has the Rayalseema region, and so has much of rural India. Is separate statehood the only solution for such a grievance? Another argument is that it is unfair to single out the alleged "settlers" from the Andhra region alone for the woes of Telangana. There is a view that at least some responsibility for the poverty in Telangana lies with its own political elites, both in recent times, and even more so when Telangana was part of the Nizam of Hyderabad's kingdom. The last, and most evocative argument for a unified Andhra Pradesh, though, is what might seem one of mere emotions, but it is really about ethics too. Simply put, would the "prize" in all this, the city of Hyderabad with all its fortunes, be what it is without the energy, resources, and indeed, love, from the rest of Andhra Pradesh?

To call the way forward a minefield would be an understatement. There are administrative and commercial concerns (the state is losing money, and the Information-Technology businesses that fueled Hyderabad's recent boom are wary). The biggest concern though is what would happen to Hyderabad--not just the city, but really a way of living in the world that mixed and melted all and held malice towards none. Until now, at least. We need to ask what would Hyderabad as capital of Telangana mean if its creation were to be predicated on the symbolic, even if not physical or legal expulsion, of all those who have made their home in it, for generations, even?

In these last few days, despite the dangerously high stakes, some grace--a grace that one may freely call Hyderabadi, Telangana, or Telugu--has prevailed to the extent that violence has been mostly emotional and not directed at bodies and lives. However, the truth is that in the past few days a deplorable form of "othering" has come to the fore in Andhra Pradesh. This was in evidence, in one instance, in a TV discussion a few days ago that was broadcast from the campus of my alma mater, the grand old Hyderabad Public School. Even as NDTV's famous anchor Barkha Dutt pressed him to distance himself from a militant, xenophobic slogan used by his supporters ("Andhrawalo Bhago" or "Run away, People from Andhra"), the pro-Telangana party's smart, articulate, and seemingly nice young leader did not do so. He insisted though that Telangana's grievance was not against Andhras but "exploiters" from the Andhra region. A position against exploiters is fine, I couldn't have agreed more. But a position that just singled out one community is disturbing. I stared at the TV image of my old school, with its domes and arched corridors, and tried to recall if anyone ever "othered" anyone in a place like that . I do not think so. To do so just wasn't HPS. It just wasn't Hyderabad.

So it has come to this now. A city that was so hybrid that we got made fun of by Bollywood and by most other Indians for it is now on the verge of an identity reinvention so deep and artificial that it will wound us more than the worst developer's axe or bulldozer. The greatest thing about Hyderabad is that people still come and fall in love with it and make it their home. And it is some of these voices that are calling out the appalling crime against commonsense and humanity that has snowballed so quickly in Andhra Pradesh in recent days. In this lucid and passionate blog post, NDTV's Hyderabad correspondent, T.S. Sudhir observed the cruel irony of the fact that Telugu, that very language that formed the basis of our identity so far, has now become an instrument of abuse; and this abuse is not for any others, but for fellow Telugu-speakers. In the same post, the comments reveal a tale of emerging anxiety in Hyderabad: some people are choosing to speak in English instead of Telugu lest their dialect mark them as outsiders. In their own state. In their own country.

Telangana's aspirations are no cause for condemnation, but the easy banality with which the cruder aspects of politics have emerged cannot be ignored in the name of those aspirations. There are only two questions that remain here. We need to ask what we all want. If it is prosperity for all, then we need to really ask if separation will create those conditions. We also need to ask what price we are willing to pay for whatever it is that we want, and I mean the sort of price that needs to be measured in something more than money. I think that a Telangana, or Andhra Pradesh, without whatever made us who we are so far will be a great loss. It is on this point that I believe most sincerely that Hyderabad can be an example for us. We can either try to be make our state more like Hyderabad, make it a place where all are welcome, a place of hybrid cultures. Or we can do the opposite and try to reduce everything, even Hyderabad itself, to a politically motivated monoculture that will stifle it, and suffocate us all.

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