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Plans for new Indian state spark demands for more

Wednesday - 9/4/2013, 9:56am  ET

FILE - In this Aug. 20, 2013 file photo, student leader Pramod Boro addresses hundreds of thousands of Bodo tribals who gathered demanding the creation of a new state of Bodoland during a mass rally at Ghoramara in Somitpur district of Assam state, India. Ever since India's ruling coalition endorsed the creation of the new southern state of Telangana, a rash of demands for new states have burst into mutinous life across India, with strikes and protests that could redraw the country's political map. Leaders of the Gorkhaland and Bodo movements, two of the most prominent splinter groups, view the Telangana decision as nothing short of a betrayal of their own dreams. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath, File)

Associated Press

NEW DELHI (AP) -- India, a nation of 1.2 billion people, has 28 states. Some would rank among the world's most populous countries.

So when India's ruling coalition endorsed a 29th state last month, millions of people who have felt ignored and marginalized living far from their state capitals had the same reaction: Why not us?

In West Bengal state, for example, tens of thousands of indigenous Gorkhas demanding their own state -- Gorkhaland -- have barricaded streets in Darjeeling, the town best known for its prized tea gardens. Strikes have shut down businesses. Police arrested dozens of activists and clamped a curfew in the worst-hit districts last week.

Demands for more than two dozen new states have burst into mutinous life, and the strikes and protests could redraw India's political map.

There are no immediate signs of widespread instability, but the localized rumblings could deflect government attention from its most pressing task: improving the struggling Indian economy.

It's unclear whether the ruling coalition will accept more states. Even the proposal it endorsed, for carving the state of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh state, is a long way from implementation.

India has always been a political patchwork of astonishingly diverse humanity. Since independence from Britain in 1947, the sprawling country of different religions, distinct cultures and hundreds of languages has been bound together into a cohesive if chaotic democracy.

The Indian system gives broad power to states, which were drawn broadly along linguistic lines, most of them by a state reorganization commission in the mid-1950s. But many states are so large they have become difficult to govern, leaving politically marginalized regions out of India's economic boom.

Some larger states have already been split apart, most recently with the creation of three new states in 2000. If Telangana clears numerous legislative hurdles, it will become the country's 29th state.

Telangana would be composed of the mostly poor, inland districts of Andhra Pradesh state. While its people are ethnically the same as most in Andhra Pradesh, they have long felt ignored by a state government that appeared to divert most resources to the more prosperous southern and coastal districts. For years, the region has been churned by violent protests and hunger strikes.

People in Telangana celebrated when New Delhi backed the creation of the new state, but the decision also triggered counterprotests from supporters of a united Andhra Pradesh. A key point of contention is that the proposed Telangana would include Hyderabad, a wealthy IT and industrial hub.

In New Delhi, angry lawmakers on both sides of the Telangana debate repeatedly disrupted the lower house of parliament this week, and nine parliamentarians were suspended.

The decision on a new state faces several hurdles. The home ministry must decide how to divide Andhra Pradesh's resources, waterways and employees. The federal Cabinet, India's president, the state assembly and parliament would have to approve the plan. Parsa V. Rao, a political analyst in New Delhi, said the process will take several months at least.

The abrupt decision on Telangana by the Congress party, the most powerful member of the ruling coalition, was made with next year's general elections in mind, but it has given new life to other longstanding demands for new states based on ethnic or linguistic lines.

Claimants to more than two dozen potential states feel their demands now stand a greater chance of success. Aside from Telangana, however, the government has answered most demands for new states by suggesting exploratory talks but making no commitments.

Activists in the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra state are demanding statehood, arguing that the impoverished, water-scarce region has been ignored in favor of the coastal areas around Mumbai. In central India, economically deprived Bundelkhand, currently split between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states, has convulsed with demands to separate. The western part of Uttar Pradesh wants to break away to form Harit Pradesh, a prosperous enclave close to the national capital.

In India's northeast, a cauldron of ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, calls for a multitude of separate states have been simmering for decades. Apart from the Gorkhas, there are demands from the Bodo, Karbi, Dimasa, Kuki and Naga ethnic groups, all seeking new states.

The Gorkhaland and Bodo movements, two of the most prominent splinter groups, are much older than the efforts to create a Telangana state, and the leaders of those groups see the Telangana decision as nothing short of a betrayal of their own dreams.

"If they can give Telangana, then why can't we have Bodoland? We want a similar kind of justice," said S.K. Bwismuthiary, a member of parliament from the remote northeastern state of Assam.

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