Book Review: We, the People of the States of Bharat
Tracing the meandering course of India’s internal geography from the first Hindi map in 1952 to the reorganisation of J&K in 2019
Historical accounts are usually narrated from either the victor’s angle, or the loser’s; based on either events or individuals; seen through either spatial or temporal lenses. But this book approaches the history of post-Independence India from an entirely different and novel angle—the cartographic lines that shaped the units which comprise the states of modern India.
It examines the cartographic footprints of political decisions, linguistic, ethnic, religious and social aspirations that determined where the internal boundaries of states should be drawn, and in the process ends up as a fascinating account of how the Indian Republic evolved from 1947 to the latest carving up of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019.
The author traces the course of India’s internal geography from the first Hindi map of India in 1952 to the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. He explains the rationale for the disappearance and reappearance of Tibet on our maps, the role of the States Reorganisation Commission, the integration of Portuguese and French territories into the republic, the dismemberment of Assam into seven states and the creation of Nagaland, the merger of Sikkim, the formation of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Uttarakhand, the inevitable birth of Telangana, the disputes over state capitals such as Madras, Chandigarh and Hyderabad, the new outlines of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, among many other accounts.
It is a fascinating narration of political movements, regional aspirations, linguistic demands and an example of what can be achieved by dialogue, accommodation, wise counsel and statesmanship.
Of particular interest are the chapters relating to the merger of the 562 princely states (nine opted for Pakistan) and nine provinces, and the manner of drawing their boundaries. Chopra lays bare, through first rate secondary research, the moves and compulsions of the Congress, the Muslim League, Sheikh Abdullah and Maharajah Hari Singh in Kashmir, though they finally led to the signing of the Instrument of Accession on 26 October 1947, which left a legacy that bedevils us today. Of Kashmir’s total area of 222,236 sq. km, Pakistan and China continue to occupy 78,114 sq. km and 42,735 sq. km, respectively.
It’s not possible to recount the cartographic background of each state in a short review, but a flavour of the book can be gleaned from the chapter pertaining to the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad, the jewel in the Chamber of Princes. The then Nizam, Osman Ali Khan, tried to position himself as a rival of Jinnah for leadership of the Indian Muslims during and post 1947.
In an ironic paradox, Kashmir and Hyderabad had reverse similarities: both were ruled by sovereigns belonging to a religion different from the majority of their subjects. Chopra explains how the activism of the Congress, Hindu Mahasabha and the Arya Samaj gradually made the Nizam’s position of sovereign independence untenable. He received no support from either Mountbatten or Jinnah; the latter, in fact, saw him as a rival and did not want him in Pakistan. The matter was finally decided by Operation Polo when the Indian army marched in on 15 September 1948 and Hyderabad was integrated into the dominion of India.
The merger of the fractious princely states was a monumental task without parallel in global history; the sheer magnitude of the achievement can perhaps be appreciated with just one example: the Kathiawar region of Gujarat alone had 222 separate princely states!
This book’s primary feat is that it takes us back in time to reveal how the states of today took shape after balancing competing demands, as in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal, Andhra Pradesh, Madras, Madhya Pradesh to name just a few. New states were formed, old ones like Hyderabad and Baroda disappeared, and (an interesting but little-known titbit) the seeds of Telangana were sown in 1957 when a Gentleman’s Agreement was signed between the leaders of the two regions for sharing power.
We also learn of little-known nuggets of history: how the merger of Bengal and Bihar into a super-state was narrowly avoided because the proposal was never formally submitted to the States Reorganisation Commission even though both the chief ministers had agreed upon it.
The reader is also told about the international ramifications of the merger of the French and Portuguese enclaves, the graphic history of the strategic Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands, the convoluted passions and concerns of the peoples of the north-eastern states— an issue not yet fully resolved—the soft spot of the British for the Nagas; the difference between the Parts A, B and C states; the subtle distinctions between Instrument of Accession, Merger Agreement and a Standstill Agreement.
We The People is a treasure trove of little-known facts and a subtle blend of history and geography. Rome was not built in a day, nor was the Indian republic. In fact, it is still a work in progress 75 years later, which just shows how stupendous was the task that confronted the founders of our nation.
This book should be a tribute to those statesmen, visionaries and administrators who navigated their way through those tempestuous seas to reach the safe harbour that is the thriving and united Republic of India today. This book should be made compulsory reading for today’s Parliamentarians and politicians who are doing their best to undo the phenomenal achievements of their predecessors in creating a nation out of chaos.