Linguistic Provinces are the Foundation of Indian Federalism and Unity

While resolving to split Andhra Pradesh, the Parliament has formally abandoned the linguistic principle of provincial organisation. The principle was not even debated or discussed. It was as if the principle did not exist or were of no particular consequence for the polity of the nation.

Yet, the linguistic principle of provincial organisation was among the fundamental ideas that inspired the Indian freedom struggle. The principle was enunciated at the very beginning of the new and decisive phase of the struggle that began with Mahatma Gandhi taking over the leadership of the Indian National Congress. To make it an effective instrument of the freedom struggle that he envisaged, he completely recast the Congress; its objectives, priorities, methods, membership and decision-making processes were all changed and fashioned afresh. All this was written into a new Constitution that the Congress adopted in its Nagpur session held in December 1920. Linguistic organisation of provinces formed a major aspect of this new constitution.

In the letter forwarding the draft of the new Constitution to the then Chairman of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the members of the drafting committee, underlined the significance of this principle thus:

Another noteworthy change we have made is to redistribute the provinces on a linguistic basis. We believe that the present distribution made from time to time to meet the exigencies of a conquering power is unscientific and is calculated to retard the political and social progress of the respective communities speaking a common vernacular and therefore the growth of India as a whole. We therefore feel that so far as the Congress is concerned, we should re-divide India into provinces on a linguistic basis. This would also strengthen the movement for securing such a redistribution by the Government.

Following this principle, the Congress Constitution divided the country into 21 provinces. All of these, except Bombay City, were linguistically uniform. Bombay was bilingual, comprising both Marathi and Gujarati-speaking populations. The list also included 3 Marathi-speaking provinces besides Bombay and 6 Hindustani-speaking provinces. Hindustani for Mahatma Gandhi included Urdu, and NWFP of undivided India was counted as a Hindustani-speaking province. Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Sindhi, Punjabi, Oriya, Assamese, Burmese and Bengali all had a separate province of their own. Most of the States as we know them today, including Andhra Pradesh, were thus formed already in 1920 and perhaps existed from much earlier times. After Independence, we have only made our administrative structures conform to the pre-existing linguistic, cultural and political reality of India. Therefore, when we make moves to split a State like Andhra, we should remember that we are splitting a unit of much longer historical standing and significance than the mere administrative and electoral reordering of 1956.

The list of provinces drawn by Mahatma Gandhi represented the reality of India as he came to know during his repeated sojourns through much of India since his arrival here in 1915. It was because this linguistic division came naturally to the people of India that the existing Provincial Congress Committees (PCC) forthwith proceeded to reorganize themselves along these lines and continued to function thus until Independence. The Constitution of the Congress was amended in 1934, but the list of Provinces remained unchanged.

For Mahatma Gandhi, this reorganisation was essential because it allowed people speaking the same language to live together as a single political unit and conduct their affairs autonomously in their own language. Mahatma Gandhi believed that organising the people into such homogenous and autonomous units was necessary even for obtaining their full participation in the freedom struggle; that is why he reorganised the Congress in this manner at almost the very beginning of the struggle. The right of the people to organise themselves on the linguistic basis became a part of the struggle for swaraj and freedom. It was one of the major articles of the Swaraj Scheme of 1924, where Mahatma Gandhi asserted, “There should be re-distribution of provinces on a linguistic basis with as complete autonomy as possible for every province for its internal administration and growth.”

The linguistic basis of organising provincial polity was indeed so natural, and Mahatma Gandhi’s provincial list was so prescient, that when after Independence the reorganisation of States was completed in 1956, the States that then came into existence were nearly the same as Mahatma Gandhi had formed for the purposes of the Congress in 1920. Of the 21 States of the Congress Constitution, Burma, Sindh and NWFP, in addition to parts of Punjab and Bengal, had gone out of the Indian Union. Of the remaining 18 Provinces, the 4 Marathi-speaking provinces, including Bombay City, were merged to form the greater Maharashtra and Delhi became a union territory. Only States like Goa and Jammu & Kashmir where there was no Congress organisation in the pre-Independence period got added to the list. Later Haryana and Himachal were formed out of Punjab and 6 new states were created in the northeast. Later still, Sikkim became a State of India. India had these 25 states until the creation of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. And now Telangana becomes the 29th state.

It is a measure of the pettiness that came to prevail in the Indian polity immediately after the achievement of Independence that it took several years of struggles and sacrifices by the people of different regions to implement the principle of linguistic provinces, which was meant to be the natural consequence of Independence and swaraj. Mahatma Gandhi himself gets greatly distressed by the various pulls and pressures that began to arise already in 1947; referring to a letter he received from Acharya Shriman Narayan Agrawal regarding delay in the formation of linguistic provinces, he writes, in the Harijan of 23 November 1947:

…that what is proper to be done should not be delayed without just cause, and that what is improper should not be conceded under any circumstances whatsoever. There can be no compromise with evil and since linguistic redistribution is desirable from almost every point of view, all delay in carrying out the project should be avoided. …But the reluctance to enforce linguistic redistribution is perhaps justifiable in the present depressing atmosphere. The exclusive spirit is ever uppermost. Everyone thinks of himself and his family. No one thinks of the whole of India.  …The Congress does not command the prestige and authority it found itself in possession of in 1920. …Let there be no undue strain upon the Congress, whose foundations have been shaken to their roots. It is ill-equipped today either for arbitrating between rival claimants or imposing its will upon recalcitrant….

Part of the reason for the delay and distress perhaps lay in the reality of the situation in which the British had left India. While writing the Congress Constitution in 1920, Mahatma Gandhi took into account only those provinces which were under direct British control. It was wisely decided not to extend the Congress organisation into areas ruled by Indian kings. The Independence struggle was to be fought against the British, not against the Indians. After Independence, and the subsequent merger of the territories of the Indian States in the Indian Union, the latter had to be accommodated in the appropriate linguistic units. This was the cause of much of the struggle around the reorganisation of States that was witnessed in the early years of Independence; this was also perhaps the main reason why we had to wait up to 1956 before the formation of linguistic States along the lines that had already been settled in 1920.

But there was also certain reluctance on the part of some of the senior Congress leaders to implement the principle. There should have been no reason for the central leadership to wait until the sacrifice of Potti Sriramulu before conceding the formation of the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra Pradesh. Telugu-speaking parts of the Nizam’s territory of Hyderbad, which are now being separated again into Telangana State, were added to Andhra Pradesh at least three years later, after much further struggle.

This reluctance to form the linguistic States reflected some ambivalence about the nature of Indian federalism. Mahatma Gandhi had no ambivalence on this. For him India was to be a federation of provinces formed “on a linguistic basis with as complete autonomy as possible for every province for its internal administration and growth.” And the provinces themselves were to work on a federal basis with each PCC consisting of representatives elected annually by the members of the District and lower-level Committees according to rules framed by the respective Committees. Even such rules were not to be centrally framed. Mahatma Gandhi wanted Independent India to be such a federal polity; he had repeatedly asserted that for him the Congress Constitution of 1920 was the model for the Constitution of Independent India.

However, the Congress leadership which came to rule over India after Independence did not have the same unconditional respect for federalism at every level and autonomous functioning of all units up to the lowest level. That is why Indian Constitution accommodated federalism in a rather weak form and the central Governments tried to ride roughshod over the States whenever they could get the opportunity. That is why achieving linguistic States became such a long drawn out struggle for the people. And since the formation of linguistic States, there have been repeated attempts to violate the linguistic basis of provincial organisation. Formation of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand also constituted breaking up of linguistically homogenous regions; but that could partly be justified on ethnic and geographical grounds. Formation of Telangana is the first time when the linguistic principle has been violated without adequate reason and without the consent of the representatives of the people of the State. We have thus removed the solid foundation of Indian federalism that Mahatma Gandhi had presciently laid in 1920.

It is sad that such a momentous decision affecting the basis of state-formation in India has been taken in such a hurried and unseemly manner. It is hard to imagine the consequences of this shaking of the foundations for the polity of India. The statement of Mr. Venkaiah Naidu asserting that the Parliament was merely dividing a State and not the country may yet come to haunt the nation!


Dr. J. K. Bajaj
Centre for Policy Studies
25 February 2014