Sixty years ago, the internal map of India shifted more significantly than it ever has since Independence.
In August 1956, Parliament enacted the States Reorganisation Act, which called for states to be redrawn along linguistic lines by November 1 of that year. While many more states have been created since, this remains India’s largest collective administrative reorganisation.
Until 1956, states in India had largely retained the political boundaries left by the British. Those princely states and territories of other European countries that had been coerced or cajoled into joining the newly independent union had been absorbed into the areas around them by 1951, but no other boundaries were changed.
The catalyst for this larger reorganisation was the death in 1952 of Potti Sreeramulu, a freedom fighter who had worked closely with Gandhi. Sreeramulu went on a hunger strike to press home his demand for the separation of the Telugu- and Tamil-speaking regions in the Tamil-dominant Madras Presidency.
Demands for linguistic states were old. The British carved Orissa for Oriya speakers from Bihar and Bengal in 1936. The Indian National Congress too had committed itself to the idea well before Independence.
The Centre under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had until then resisted demands for linguistic organisation, fearing the chauvinistic tendencies they would stimulate. But when riots broke out across Madras after Sreeramulu’s death, Nehru was forced to announce that Andhra Pradesh would be formed, as it was in 1953.
That year, Nehru also appointed the States Reorganisation Commission to look into other existing demands for new states. This commission conducted public hearings across the country and submitted its report in 1955.
Small versus large
On the whole, the commission recommended consolidation in the north and division in the south. The act of 1956 implemented many, not all, of the commission’s recommendations.
The boundaries of four southern states, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Madras and Mysore were defined at this time. (Madras and Mysore were renamed Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in 1969 and 1973.) The recently annexed state of Hyderabad was divided between Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
North India was left largely untouched apart from a few consolidations. Vindhya Pradesh was added to Madhya Pradesh, Patiala to Punjab and Ajmer to Rajasthan.
BR Ambedkar, architect of the constitution, supported linguistic states – but within limits. He feared that minorities would be lost in large states, particularly if there were no safeguards to prevent communal majorities from abusing their powers.
He argued instead not for one state for each language, but for several states for each language, particularly in the north, where states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh would be likely by virtue of numbers to be able to dominate the rest of the country.
These recommendations were ignored for 45 years, when the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal (renamed Uttarakhand in 2006) were carved out of the three large northern states.
The 1956 act did not immediately address three significant sets of demands. These were of Bombay, Punjab and the North Eastern states.
Marathi and Gujarati speakers in the state of Bombay wanted to separate, but both also wanted Bombay city. Maharashtrians were also stiffly against the recommendation of the commission to have Vidarbha as a state separate from Maharashtra. This culminated in the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement which led in 1960 to the formation of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Bombay remained in Maharashtra.
In Punjab, a movement to separate Sikh and Hindu majorities was garbed in linguistic arguments. Punjab and Haryana were finally created in 1966. Parts of Punjab, including Shimla and Kulu, were ceded to Himachal Pradesh, then a union territory. Himachal Pradesh became a separate state only in 1971.
The commission had recommended that Tripura and Manipur be absorbed into Assam. The act did not make any provisions for this. Instead, various ethnic minorities in the North East put forward their demands to be separated from the Assamese majority.
The Nagas got their demand first in 1963. It took another nine years for Manipur and Tripura, both union territories, and Meghalaya, a sub-state to get full statehood in 1972. Arunachal Pradesh, then known as the North East Frontier Agency, and Mizoram became union territories at this point and became states only in 1987.
Corrections and clarifications: The article has been edited to correct the manner in which Potti Sreeramulu conducted his protest.